Opinion: Tory frontrunners flex their PR muscles

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown may be busy saving the world, but for the Conservative Party there is the more mundane matter of choosing a new leader. Michael Howard's decision to quit - but not yet - means we still have another six months of campaigning.

The front-runner is hard-man David Davis. Having mopped up all the right-wing votes this week, he made a bid for the centre ground with an article in The Observer. The 'Tories will champion the poor' headline is just what Davis wanted, and in the column he even challenged the need for ASBOs.

Modernising candidate David Cameron, the only one with a realistic chance of beating Davis, is using a similar strategy of targeting newspapers that are not natural supporters. Cameron was recently featured in the Mail on Sunday - with his son Ivan, who has cerebral palsy - having turned down The Sunday Telegraph.

All the potential candidates have their campaign teams in place. For balance, Cameron has appointed right-wing Alexander Deane as his chief of staff, while Davis has hired Andrew Mitchell MP.

The shadow home secretary also has Iain Dale, the owner of bookshop Politicos, helping out.

Surprisingly neither of the front-runners has yet appointed any experienced PR people, and central office press staff have been left twiddling their thumbs - but it can only be a matter of time before some jump ship and officially start working for their favourite runner.

Some other candidates, though, think they can handle their own PR. Liam Fox came up with the best stunt yet by abseiling down a hospital wall for charity as he informally announced his intention to run. He's clearly going for the youth vote, too: last week he bragged to The Sunday Telegraph about his boozy party with students in Paris.

As for Sir Malcolm Rifkind, it's probably too late for him anyway. His association with Thatcher and Major make him unelectable and Steve Bell's Guardian cartoon of him as a Scottish knight in John Major's underpants all but killed him off.

Given that Thatcher led the Tories to three great victories, it's surprising that there is no serious female candidate such as Theresa May. But what Tory would vote for someone who tells them the truth? May is an outside bet at 33-1.

Whoever wins may think that just one more heave will be enough for the Tories. But the Conservative Party should remember that it was only when Labour genuinely changed that it eventually won.

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