Dirty tricks have overshadowed leadership fight
TODAY is the day of truth for at least one of the Tory leadership candidates. The four left standing after a punishing campaign which started unofficially when Michael Howard announced that he was to stand down after losing the May General Election will be officially whittled down to three today. But the odds are that if one of the remaining three is trailing badly, there will only be two candidates by close of play today.
At first the contest - with any number of unofficial candidates - seemed to be raising the party profile to good effect.
And when the then five main candidates - David Davis, Ken Clarke, David Cameron, Liam Fox and Sir Malcolm Rifkind - made their pitches to the Blackpool party conference, everything in the Conservative garden looked rosy.
But since Sir Malcolm, the former MP for Edinburgh Pentlands, decided to stand aside things have got nasty.
Mr Cameron has been relentlessly attacked for his refusal to say whether he smoked cannabis at Oxford.
This was a step up from the gentle smear campaign being run by opponents that going to Eton and Balliol College was no longer the ideal training ground to be Tory leader.
But suddenly, and for no apparent reason, the focus switched to whether Mr Cameron, who once worked in the City, had taken cocaine.
And mysteriously photographs in the Daily Mail, violently opposed to Mr Cameron, suddenly showed his campaign manager George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, photographed with an alleged cocaine-snorting hooker when he was 22.
All the candidates were swift to distance themselves from any dirty tricks campaign.
Mr Davis strongly attacked any criticism of Mr Cameron.
He said: "I think there should be a kind of moral statute of limitations when it comes to adolescence or student days. If something is a long way in your past you can reasonably expect it to be forgotten."
But he's also managed to make clear that he's never taken any drugs of any kind and that the police are absolutely right to crackdown on middle-class and affluent drug users, especially those that take cocaine.
The other right wing candidate, former Scottish GP Liam Fox, has been slightly less reticent.
Without targeting Mr Cameron in person, he's made it clear that he believes all drugs are dangerous and destroy lives.
Mr Clarke, perhaps mindful of his own association with British American Tobacco and claims that nicotine is the biggest killer drug in the business, has been much more circumspect.
He's defended Mr Cameron and said that he has shown real backbone in refusing to answer the question because it would then make it open season on his own private life.
And he himself has faced a fairly virulent campaign orchestrated by his rivals about his tobacco industry link, pro-European views and allegations that he is too "lazy" to be opposition leader.
He's made the claim that he is the only candidate voters warm to and has enough experience to do the job - leading immediately to accusations that he's too old.
The odds are that Mr Davis will be the right wing candidate with Mr Clarke and Mr Cameron fighting it out in the vote of MPs to decide who goes to party members in the final ballot.
And it's likely that Mr Clarke will just beat Mr Cameron who has paid the penalty for peaking too early with his Tory conference speech.
Mr Fox looks likely to trail in a poor fourth leaving Mr Cameron as the heir apparent with enough time to shed his "toff" image and the drugs allegations before taking over after the Conservatives lose the next election.
Mr Davis then becomes the most likely to succeed Mr Howard.
However, the whiff of dirty politics will remain as will the allegation that Mr Davis has shown his traditional street fighting skills in killing off his most potent leadership rival.
And when the nation votes in four or five years that will do him and the party he will probably lead no good when they try to stop Gordon Brown's newish Labour winning a record fourth term.
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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