Major beware: while the cat's away the mice will play

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The race to succeed John Major after the general election has begun while the Prime Minister is out of the country visiting the Indian sub-continent.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, has privately declared his desire to become the Tory party leader, arguing that it would be "unthinkable" for a politician of his seniority to miss his chance.

His campaign managers are thought likely to be Sir Nicholas Bonsor, currently Minister of State at the Foreign Office, and Sir Archie Hamilton, the former Army minister.

A senior Tory back-bencher, who declined to be named on the grounds that "speculation is not very helpful", said: "I would like to see Michael Howard as a candidate, if we were not to win the general election."

Mr Major was in Bangladesh yesterday as it became clear that discreet preparations are now under way to replace him in the event, widely expected, of a Labour victory in the forthcoming election.

Invited to clarify his remarks last week, Mr Howard commented: "As Chris Patten [the former Tory party chairman] said, 'If you are in a senior position in the Cabinet, the thought will definitely cross your mind'."

The Home Secretary has been particularly active on the "rubber chicken circuit", addressing Conservative Associations up and down the country, and last month he put himself at the head of the Cabinet Eurosceptics in a series of "explosive" interventions against Chancellor Kenneth Clarke.

Mr Howard, who is 55, was yesterday described by one minister as "old- Right Conservative" who would be "in with a chance" if Mr Major quit after the election. "He is a credible candidate, a centre-Right candidate who could gather in a lot of people in the middle of the party.

"He has been very loyal to the Prime Minister, but there are people who don't feel warmth to him as a person - even if they like what he has been doing. He also has a following in the constituencies, where they like what he has been doing about crime. He comes over as quite a toughie."

However, he is likely to face a crowded field, with Defence Secretary Michael Portillo and John Redwood, the former Welsh Secretary who took on John Major in the last leadership battle, both searching for support on the Right.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, if he stands, would pick up a strong centrist vote, while Mr Clarke and Stephen Dorrell, the Health Secretary, would expect to clean up the left of the parliamentary party.

In the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, last night, Mr Major was silent on the election date, having earlier signalled his preference for 1 May. He appealed for freer trade, saying: "The relatively rich nations of Western Europe should open their markets more." Mr Major goes on to Pakistan today, where he will visit the Khyber Pass, scene of many other battles.