Friends said the former home secretary said he would put himself up for a fresh election if new rules were introduced for a one-member one-vote franchise of the whole party. "He is personally attracted to one-member one vote. That is why he would be prepared to resubmit himself for election were a new set of rules agreed," said a member of the Howard camp.
Mr Howard's campaign was derailed by Ann Widdecombe's allegations, said one right-wing Tory MP. "He has been completely derailed. He won't get any more support now. The interesting thing is how many promised votes he loses."
But there appeared to be unstoppable support growing last night for a widening of the franchise after the current election is over. Edward Leigh, a rightwing MP, said he was standing for the chairmanship of the 1922 Committee with a pledge to support one-member one-vote selection of the leader in future.
There was also growing support for delaying the leadership election by a couple of weeks to enable the chairmen of Tory associations to have a say in the choice of the new leader, pending more radical changes.
Sir Norman Fowler, a former party chairman, is backing a move by Robin Hodgson, chairman of the voluntary arm of the party, the National Union, to enable the chairmen of the associations to carry 20 per cent of the votes in the election. The offer by Tom King to stand as a caretaker leader of the Conservative Party was rejected by John Major and the camps surrounding the main candidates for the leadership. "He wants a new leader as soon as possible," said one of Mr Major's friends.
The former defence secretary put himself forward to allow a wider cross- section of the party to have a vote in the selection of the leader. But the idea flopped at Westminster. "It would be the worst of all worlds," said one senior member of the Hague camp. "And it would not stop the campaigning."
A Howard supporter said: "There will have to be a deal. If we go ahead on June 3 it will look rude to the party associations. We don't want to be accused of riding roughshod over the views of the party."
There is growing support for the leadership rules to be changed to allow one-member one-vote democracy within 18 months, but in return the MPs are demanding a central membership list, and central control over the selection of candidates by the constituencies, to stop "a repeat of Tatton", where Neil Hamilton refused to stand down over sleaze` allegations and lost to Martin Bell. "You can still have coffee mornings, but we need to modernise the party," said the Howard backer.