Tory Conference: Rule change may protect leader from challengers

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The Independent Online
Conservative leadership challenges could effectively be barred under new rules being considered by the parliamentary party. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, examines the backlash against disloyalty and disunity.

More than 40 per cent of all Conservative MPs might be required to trigger future leadership challenges like the one that resulted in Margaret Thatcher being ousted in 1990.

The Independent has been told that new rules being considered by the Tory backbench 1922 committee could create an insurmountable obstacle to future leadership hopefuls like Kenneth Clarke. With a number of disaffected MPs hoping for the return of Chris Patten and Michael Portillo to the Commons, with a view to mounting a leadership challenge to William Hague, the new rules are bound to create controversy in the Commons.

After Baroness Thatcher was challenged, first in 1989, and then, successfully, in 1990, the leadership rules were changed to make challenges more difficult - demanding that at least 10 per cent of all Tory MPs should request a contest.

But one of the plans now being considered by the 1922 committee would increase the strength of that safeguard fourfold - requiring 40 per cent of all MPs to vote against the leader in a fully-fledged vote of confidence before a leadership challenge could be unleashed.

That is such a severe hurdle that it could create a deterrent to a challenge. If a leader got less than two-thirds support of MPs and decided to stay on, as allowed under the proposed rule-change, the party could risk making itself an electoral laughing stock. Certainly, given the mood of this week's party conference, the rank-and-file membership could be expected to turn even more strongly against the MPs for their destructive disloyalty.

A Conservative leadership source has told The Independent that the leadership election "trigger"- which is now under the complete control of MPs - could be one of the issues to be examined in the final package of reform proposals to be considered by a special party conference next spring.

But he added that any proposals currently being considered by the MPs was "not cast in stone" - suggesting that they could, in turn, be subject to further modification.

In the most impassioned debate of the Blackpool conference week, rank- and-file representatives repeatedly called on Wednesday for a role in future leadership elections.

The party leadership is currently proposing that the membership should be given a proportion of between 20 per cent and 40 per cent in a leadership electoral college, with the majority of votes going to MPs

However, Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare received a standing ovation after he had called for a 50-50 split between the membership and the parliamentary party.