Davis 'on probation' after doubts over performance

The future of David Davis as Conservative Party chairman was in doubt last night, amid speculation that he may be moved from his post in a reshuffle of the party's frontbench team today.

Senior party sources had claimed that fellow members of the Shadow Cabinet had complained about Mr Davis' performance. The Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, was said to have spoken to Mr Davis, who is on holiday in Florida, about his role last night.

Speculation at Westminster last night was that, if Mr Davis is moved, possibly to another post, then a female candidate, such as Gillian Shephard, could become chairwoman. Last night, the Tories described the reshuffle as a "modest restructuring" before the Commons rises for summer recess on Thursday.

In the first sign of serious internal feuding since Mr Duncan Smith became leader, senior frontbenchers have accused Mr Davis of blocking reforms to select more women and ethnic-minority candidates and even of plotting to become leader himself.

His critics claim he has failed to boost the morale of grassroots members, fallen out with staff and ignored telephone calls from important donors to the party.

Colleagues had also criticised him for taking an early summer holiday that meant he was out of the country for Gordon Brown's setpiece spending review last week. They suggested that Mr Duncan Smith was so dissatisfied with Mr Davis that he was preparing a dressing-down meeting when he returned from his holiday on Thursday.

Mr Davis's allies hit back, pointing out that he had been given permission for his holiday and claiming that the sniping came from former supporters of Michael Portillo.

Mr Duncan Smith refused to be drawn on the controversy during a trip to Stockholm yesterday, describing it as reshuffle speculation that occurred each summer. When pressed about Mr Davis's performance, the party leader said that members of the Shadow Cabinet were "all doing a good job".

Senior sources also described as "wide of the mark" speculation that Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, would be replaced.

Mr Davis and Mr Duncan Smith were rivals for the Tory leadership last summer until Mr Davis dropped out after the second ballot.

Some colleagues claim that Mr Davis has done well with his media appearances but struggled with his duties to boost the grass roots. With a narrow majority to defend in his parliamentary seat of Haltemprice and Howden, he is wary of following Chris Patten, the Tory chairman under John Major who lost his seat in 1992.

Critics point to his absence from the usual television coverage of local election night this year. Mr Davis appeared instead on the radio the following morning, using an ISDN line from his home in Yorkshire.

Roger Gale, a party vice-chairman and ally of Mr Davis, denied suggestions of a rift between the chairman and party leader, blaming the rumours on "malcontents" within the party.

Mr Gale told BBC Radio 4's World at One: "What I am saying, from where I stand as one of the party's vice-chairmen, is that I have no notice of any rift whatsoever between the chairman and the leader ­ quite the reverse." Mr Gale said that newspaper reports had stemmed from comments by "one or two people ... who are no friends of Iain Duncan Smith and no friends of David Davis and are quite simply making mischief.

"The team at Central Office led by David is working extremely hard to bring the party to the state of readiness that we need to be in for the next general election. The leader of the party's team is doing likewise in his office," he said.

"It saddens me that there are people who can't stomach the fact that it's working well. There are always malcontents, there are always people who seek to stir trouble in every political party."

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