Iain Duncan Smith sacked David Davis as Conservative Party chairman yesterday in a shadow cabinet reshuffle that could spell trouble for his leadership.
Friends of Mr Davis said he was livid over the enforced move out of the political front-line to a newly created post shadowing John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister. Some MPs were surprised that he accepted the job.
Duncan Smith loyalists had repeatedly pressed for Mr Davis's removal, claiming he was ineffective and insufficiently committed to modernising the party's image. They also alleged he was silently manoeuvring for a leadership challenge should Mr Duncan Smith be toppled.
Mr Davis's allies claimed last night he had been the victim of a "whispering campaign" by "malevolent forces" bent on damaging the party by spreading black propaganda about his performance.
Mr Duncan Smith finally secured his reluctant consent to the switch on Monday after a series of telephone calls to Florida, where Mr Davis is on holiday with his wife. Asked if his former chairman "jumped or was pushed", the Conservative leader said: "The reality is we all went forward together."
Mr Davis was replaced as chairman by Theresa May, the first woman to hold the post, who has only been an MP for five years. She will liaise closely with a new director of communications to be appointed later this year.
She said after meeting party workers: "I believe the Conservative Party is changing and my appointment as the first woman chairman symbolises that change. The Conservative Party is an open, decent and tolerant party committed to reforming public services, and we need to get that message out across the country to people."
Mrs May is likely to press ahead with moves to attract more female and ethnic minority candidates; she has in the past proposed the Tories having all-women shortlists in 50 per cent of winnable seats
Mr Duncan Smith said his party was ready to begin "fleshing out policy areas". He added: "To do that we will need a party that is co-ordinated and focused. I believe the person who most embodies that is Theresa."
Mrs May has been replaced as shadow Transport Secretary by the shadow Cabinet Office Minister Tim Collins, a former spin doctor to John Major. He made his first Commons appearance in his new job within minutes of its confirmation, during a government statement on plans to expand the numbers of airports.
His elevation was described by a Tory spokesman as an "important promotion", recognising his skill as a political analyst, as well as his strong media and Commons performances.
Tim Yeo, the shadow Culture Secretary, becomes shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, swapping jobs with John Whittingdale. John Bercow, a relentless government critic and impressive parliamentary performer, moves from shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury to become shadow Work and Pensions minister.
Howard Flight, a self-made City millionaire, takes Mr Bercow's post in the Treasury team. John Hayes, a Duncan Smith loyalist and MP for a rural Lincolnshire constituency, arrives in the Shadow Cabinet as agriculture spokesman.
The only MP to lose his place at the Tory top table is James Clappison, who was shadow Work and Pensions minister. He becomes a junior member of the Treasury team. Other senior jobs remain unchanged, including Oliver Letwin as shadow Home Secretary and Michael Howard as shadow Chancellor. Both are rated as successes in their jobs so far by the Tory leadership.
Trading places: The young guns scramble for position
Was: Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury
Now: Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions
The 39-year-old, seen as a hard-working high-flier with a crusade to expose Government waste, will now be focusing on Whitehall's biggest spending department. An extreme right-winger in his student days, he has embraced the modernisation agenda with enthusiasm. His work rate has won many admirers among colleagues, but some regard him as an unguided missile capable of damaging the leadership.
Was: Shadow Treasury Minister
Now: Shadow Secretary to the Treasury
The new deputy to the shadow Chancellor Michael Howard is a 53-year-old self-made millionaire sitting on a reputed £5m fortune. It was built up in a 25-year City career which ended in 1997 when he became MP for Arundel and South Downs. However, he has kept his close links in the Square Mile, which was a key reason for his promotion. He had a brief spell in the limelight last year when a leaked memo by him revealed Tory in-fighting over economic policy.
Was: Shadow Cabinet Office Minister
Now: Shadow Transport Secretary
Has worked for Tory party since leaving university, including spell as John Major's spokesman. He arrived in the Commons as MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale in 1997 and served as a Whip before becoming deputy Tory chairman three years ago. Now 38, he is regarded as able and articulate – but is best known in Westminster as an avid Star Trek fan. He has led Tory attacks on alleged favours-for-cash by the Government.