Boris Johnson has emerged as the favoured choice of Conservatives to succeed David Cameron as leader of the party, according to a survey for the Independent.
The Mayor of London, who is enjoying a high profile during the Olympics, is favoured by 32 per cent of party members, according to the poll of 1419 activists conducted by the ConservativeHome website.
His nearest rivals are William Hague, the Foreign Secretary and a former party leader, who is backed by 24 per cent, and Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, on 19 per cent.
George Osborne, who was widely seen as Johnson's main rival in the future leadership stakes, is supported by a derisory 2 per cent after a difficult four months since his trouble-hit Budget. Tory leaders are elected by party members in a ballot after the contenders are whittled down to a shortlist of two by the party's MPs.
The survey also revealed lukewarm support for Cameron among the Conservative grassroots. A minority (49 per cent) of members surveyed want the Prime Minister to lead them into the next general election. Johnson is the second choice on 18 per cent, followed by Hague on 12 per cent and David Davis, the former shadow Home Secretary, on 10 per cent. No members opt for Osborne.
According to the poll, Tory members are pessimistic about the party's chances of retaining power at the next election. A majority (53 per cent) believe Labour is most likely to be in office while 47 per cent think the Tories will be.
A Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition is seen as the most likely outcome (22 per cent), followed by an overall Labour or Conservative majority (both 20 per cent), a minority Tory government (19 per cent), a minority Labour government (11 per cent) and a second Con-LibDem coalition (8 per cent).
There appears to be little love for the present Coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
The most favoured course, backed by 41 per cent of members, is for the Coalition to end shortly before the election so the two parties can set out their own plans. About 19 per cent want it to continue right up to the election.
Allies of Johnson will be encouraged by the findings. Until recently, he enjoyed little support among Conservative MPs but has been taken much more seriously as a potential leader since beating Labour's Ken Livingstone in May to win a second term at City Hall. He is now regarded as the most popular Tory politician in the country.
In contrast, Osborne appears to have suffered a dramatic fall from grace after a disastrous Budget and growing doubts about his economic strategy following the slide into a double-dip recession.
Unless the Chancellor's fortunes recover, he may not stand in a future leadership contest. Gove could then emerge as the "stop Boris" candidate.
- IndependentBy Andrew Grice