The two contenders for the Conservative leadership accused each other of political opportunism on Sunday as they entered the final stages of the contest with a televised debate.

David Cameron, the 39-year-old shadow education secretary, warned Tory MPs that they should not vote with “dinosaur” Labour backbenchers against sensible public service reforms. Mr Cameron admitted last week that he had been wrong to oppose the government on higher university tuition fees, and financial freedoms for “foundation” hospitals. He also backed Tony Blair’s forthcoming shake-up of health, education and disability benefits.

But David Davis, shadow home secretary, accused Mr Cameron of “U-turns” on health, education and immigration that made him look inconsistent. The two men, appearing together on ITV’s Jonathan Dimbleby programme, clashed on tax, drugs policy and licensing reform. Party members are voting on who to replace Michael Howard as leader.

The result of the ballot, which followed votes among MPs, is expected to be announced on December 6.

Not for the first time, Mr Davis, 56, warned that choosing his rival, who has been dubbed by sections of the media as the “heir to Blair”, risked alienating voters who had been fooled by “used car salesman” Mr Blair before. Mr Davis has promised not to “prop up” Labour.

“We don’t want to be an accomplice in that confidence trick on the British public,” he said.

Mr Cameron hit back, arguing that the party had to support reforms that were right for the country. “The alternatives are either back them and say ‘yes let’s improve it further’. Or go through the divisions lobbies in the House of Commons with [Labour rebels] Frank Dobson and Jeremy Corbyn and people who, frankly, if you put them in the Natural History Museum, the dinosaurs would walk out in objection.

“I don’t want to see the Conservative party do that. It is too opportunistic.”

On the economy, Mr Davis reiterated his view that there was no alternative to cutting the tax burden if Britain were to remain competitive, a strategy he argued would save £38bn by the end of the next parliament while maintaining strong public services. He called Mr Cameron’s tax policy “vague”.

Mr Cameron, who has promised to “share the proceeds of growth” between low taxes and public services, called his rival “reckless”. “Promising big upfront tax cuts I think undermines credibility in your economic policy and therefore undermines broader credibility in the party as a whole.”

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