The Conservative Party is entering uncharted territory. After
William Hague's hasty resignation speech, the party faithful is faced
with the unusual prospect of actually electing its leader.
Until Ted Heath took the post in 1965, Tory leaders simply 'emerged'
from soundings among senior party figures. For the last three decades,
Tory backbenchers have decided.
But now, with help from MPs in culling the field to two, local Tory
members of at least three months standing will fill in a leadership
postal ballot for the first time.
As PRWeek went to press, the first ballot of MPs was being reheld in
Westminster following an inconclusive poll in which Ancram and Davis
came joint last, and neither agreed to back down. The PR war for
whichever candidates make it to the final run-off has stepped up a
The reaction of the party to the candidates' images, speeches, even
appearances on Question Time, is now not just important - but vital -
Michael Portillo remains the frontrunner among MPs, with former
chancellor Kenneth Clarke topping polls among conservative
Portillo aide Nigel Waterson MP is one of a small group that gathers at
the candidate's election HQ in Westminster each morning to discuss
He says: 'At the election, a lot of our policies were right but we
failed to communicate. That's what we have to address. This campaign can
get our message out to the country.'
Portillo's campaign centres on portraying a humble man who can move on
from past mistakes . Campaign highlights include a lunch with pupils at
a Kennington school, pledging to spend more time, 'at the sharp end' of
The revelation that he is a former hospital porter is a wonderful
attempt for a Tory to woo public sector workers.
But the allegations of 'backbiting' made by former shadow home secretary
Anne Widdecombe, as Portillo launched his campaign, have hurt. And fresh
allegations that he failed to declare cash from speaking engagements
cannot be helping his cause.
Clarke was a late entrant to the leadership race, almost a week after
Portillo and the other three candidates, Michael Ancram, David Davis and
The popular media image is of rotund Ken, the europhile smoker who
speaks his mind. He has gone out of his way to attack the PR effort by
his own party during the general election campaign.
One europhile Tory supporter, Zed communications head Patrick Kerr, says
that, paradoxically, Clarke is winning the PR battle by distancing
himself so well from obvious spin: 'If you look at the way the public
was turned off by spinning and media massaging at the election, it's
obvious Ken would be popular. He is a man who can't be airbrushed.'
But Kerr adds that Clarke, who acts as deputy chairman of British
American Tobacco, is the benefactor of a sympathetic media. He says: 'He
came into the contest late and while his opponents were getting their
messages across he was in Vietnam selling cigarettes. That could have
attracted bad publicity.
But people in the media just thought "good old Ken" instead of attacking
Old-style aristocrat Ancram, chairman of the party during the last
election, is an outside hope. His image is as the man to unite the
party, but his launch was marred by footage of him idly strumming a folk
guitar - dangerously similar in style to the snaps of Hague wearing a
baseball cap at the Notting Hill carnival in 1997.
Right-winger Davis revels in his role as the dark horse but is still
anonymous to the majority of supporters.
This anonymity also attaches to Duncan Smith, but he received a boost
last week when he called for the party to unite in favour of a
referendum on the Euro. This distinguished him from Portillo, who has
campaigned against such a poll.
Another important factor, according to David Beamer, lifelong Tory and
director of PoliticsDirect.com, is that all the candidates now view the
use of websites as crucial to the race. But Beamer would like to see
more interaction between members and candidates on the sites.
'There are no discussion forums to raise issues and debate policies when
the vote is put to party members. This could be a useful way to attract
and engage with them,' he says.
But what is the grass roots reaction to the five campaigns so far?
Councillor Roger Thomas, Conservative vice-chairman of East Sussex
council and a freelance PRO, gives an insight into the views of
conservative members on the campaign so far.
'What members here want is to choose from a shortlist of Clarke and
Portillo,' he says. 'There is disagreement with Clarke's views on
Europe, but he is a familiar face. Older members feel at ease with
Thomas adds: 'I think Portillo's revelation of a "homosexual encounter"
will put off some members but there is a feeling he would win us the
election and appeal to the majority of people.'
But as for the rest? Thomas says Ancram has come across as 'too cosy',
particularly after his guitar-playing PR stunt.
Duncan Smith, whom Thomas accidentally refers to as Gordon Smith, is
thought likely to suffer from his relative anonymity and from the sense
that he comes from the extreme right of the party, and has been backed
publicly by Lord Tebbit. Davis is seen as capable, trustworthy and
committed, but too much of an unknown for the leadership role.
Given these doubts, no-one would bet against Portillo, except perhaps
Clarke, over a nice cheroot.