Conservative MPs are poised to throw away their most important power by giving up their exclusive right to choose their leader in favour of one member, one vote (Omov) democracy in the Tory party.
The change may be enough to have older Tories choking on their pink gins. Right wing party activists who oppose a ballot of the whole party to choose the next leader said last night it would have meant that Kenneth Clarke would have beaten William Hague for the leadership and Margaret Thatcher would never have been chosen.
"You will just get the most famous of the candidates. The party would have been stuck with Ken Clarke. Heseltine could have won. But Thatcher would never have been selected," said a right wing Tory activist.
It is unclear whether OMOV would give Chris Patten the edge in a leadership election over Michael Portillo. Both would first have to win seats at Westminster and Mr Hague will not go before the next election, but the change has added spice to the speculation in the Tory party about their possible return.
The party in the country is keen to assert its rights after the 1 May electoral disaster, for which the MPs bore the brunt of the blame. The Conservative Democratic Movement claimed yesterday that a survey showed a clear majority in favour of Omov.
The survey also showed that ordinary members found Tory Central Office remote and bureaucratic. Mr Hague has made it clear that he supports Omov for the future.
The grass roots campaign for change gained momentum when Archie Hamilton, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, did a U-turn and backed Omov with the executive and a majority of the committee in a letter to Tory MPs.
The MPs have a range of options, but they are being urged to back a system in which a challenge could be mounted after a vote of no confidence; that would trigger a primary leadership contest among the MPs to weed out the wild cards before allowing a shortlist to go before the full membership.
Archie Norman, vice-chairman of the party, also now supports Omov. John Horam, a former minister, and Richard Ottoway, a Tory spokesman on London, are campaigning for the system in tomorrow's ballot and are confident of victory.
It is part of a consultation exercise on Blueprint for Change, a reform green paper which opposed Omov.
Tory chairmen are meeting in London on 17 January to discuss their response to the document for final agreement at a conference in the spring.Reuse content