Tories Back Hope over Experience; Tactical Voting Puts Paid to 'Old Man' KenAs MPs Vote for Their Leader, Young Pretender Cameron Caps an Amazing Fortnight by Emerging as the Favourite - While the Davis Campaign Falters

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Byline: BENEDICT BROGAN

DAVID Cameron's campaign for the Tory leadership looked unstoppable last night after Conservative MPs brought down the curtain on Kenneth Clarke.

The young pretender capped a remarkable political fortnight by securing a strong second place in the first parliamentary ballot.

MPs brushed aside doubts about the 39-year-old's inexperience, and his failure to give a categorical answer to questions about his drugs use, to give his candidacy valuable momentum.

His electrifying success, and a bullish third-place showing by Dr Liam Fox with 42 votes, left David Davis battling to save his beleaguered candidacy - despite topping the poll with 62.

Mr Cameron, who polled 56, is aiming to break through the 100 mark in tomorrow's second round. This would give him the support of a majority of MPs and allow him to claim a mandate when the party membership of 300,000 vote on the final short list of two.

He moved quickly to build on his momentum by appealing for Mr Clarke's supporters to rally to his side and give him a clear majority. Sir Malcolm Rifkind was the first senior Clarke backer to respond.

Mr Clarke's third attempt to secure the Conservative crown ended in failure when Rightwing MPs voted tactiwantscally to keep him off the short list. His barnstorming performance at the Blackpool party conference confirmed him as the most popular Tory among voters and Conservative members but he only obtained 38 votes from MPs.

There were criticisms last night that the MPs have denied the membership a chance to vote for a favourite. Clarke supporter Tim Yeo said: 'I think it's a tragedy for the party and the country that he's not in the last two. I thought the party had recovered its appetite for power but it has started to talk to itself again.' With his frontline career now over, the 65-year-old former Chancellor is expected to throw his weight behind Mr Cameron. Last night he admitted the Tories 'are looking for a younger leader'.

But Mr Cameron faced a determined challenge from 44-year-old Dr Fox, who nearly doubled his declared supporters and appeared on course to snatch second place from a faltering Mr Davis.

With his campaign in turmoil last night, the Shadow Home Secretary was struggling to prevent his support from ebbing away. …