Depressed Tories left asking: is Michael Howard the biggest bedblocker of all?

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Indy Politics

As Michael Howard flies south this weekend to holiday with Anne Robinson in a villa she has hired in Tuscany, colleagues report that he is looking "very tired" and in need of a good rest nine months after his coronation.

Before he left, however, he needed to have one last, urgent conversation with David Davis, his Shadow Home Secretary and the man who stepped aside for him last November. Tensions between the two men's camps boiled over last week after Mr Howard's aides were suspected of briefing against Mr Davis and his allies.

In a counter-attack, Derek Conway, a Tory backbencher and ally of Mr Davis, dismissed the trendy young clique around the leader as the tipsy habitués of "curious Notting Hill bistros".

The phrase led to a week's mockery for the set led by Rachel Whetstone, Mr Howard's closest adviser and the woman blamed for inspiring the Daily Telegraph claim that he wanted to purge the party of inactive "bedblocker" MPs.

"All you see are these same old, suntanned faces who seem incredibly uninspired," the newspaper quoted an unnamed source as saying.

The damage inflicted by the piece, written by one of Ms Whetstone's friends, runs far deeper than that inflicted on her reputation, however. It seems likely that the newspaper will face at least one, and possibly as many as a half-dozen writs from Tory MPs it named as "bedblockers".

One, Sir Paul Beresford, MP for Mole Valley and member of the 1922 Committee executive, is marshalling the allegedly inactive with a view to a group libel action. He said he "warmed the seat" of one of the journalists responsible for the piece. Jonathan Isaby, intriguingly, has since told the MP's local paper that his original list of allegedly inactive MPs was altered by the newspaper in his absence.

Another "bedblocker", Jonathan Sayeed, MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, last night told The Independent on Sunday that he suspected the Telegraphhad been briefed "by someone close to Michael Howard to shift the blame for what was less than his 'finest hour'".

The reference to Mr Howard's poor performance in the Commons debate after the Butler report was echoed by Ian Taylor, MP for Esher and another named in the list. "If some of these people [around Howard] got out of their cots and spent more time listening to us, they might hear that we provide sage advice."

One senior member of the Shadow Cabinet last night despaired of the party achieving unity. "It is just so depressing. Two lost by-elections and one bad Commons performance, and people go to pieces."

Despite their peace meeting last week, it is clear that relations between Mr Davis and his leader remain tense. Friends of Mr Davis say that he remains furious about the briefing against him, particularly the claims that he is not working hard enough for the Tory cause. He has been highly sensitive to the criticism since Iain Duncan Smith sacked him as party chairman.

Mr Davis is threatening to sue The Daily Telegraph over its report and has dug out documentary evidence of Mr Howard's approval for his attendance on a parliamentary trip to the US that prompted the latest spate of backbiting.

Suggestions that the Shadow Home Secretary will take charge of the party during Mr Howard's holiday are firmly quashed by the Tory leader's aides. Their summer campaign on wasteful government spending will be conducted by "a rota of the Shadow Cabinet". "There will not be a preponderance of any one member," said an aide, in a clear reference to Mr Davis.

For his part, Mr Davis has no intention of scaling down a planned summer blitz, say allies, who point out that he is a past master at scoring hits during the slow news months of high summer. Having questioned his commitment, Mr Howard's aides can hardly complain if he leads the charge now, say friends.

Although the recent outbreak of squabbling is damaging, not every Tory MP is flustered. "Too much heat, everyone knackered," was the consoling perspective offered by one long-time observer of such flaps. Nevertheless, the truce between factions has proved far more fragile than was supposed, and an all-too-familiar pattern looms from the party's recent past.

Already a list of candidates to take over from Mr Howard is beginning to circulate in Westminster, although almost all Tory MPs accept that he is safe until the election. Mr Davis, Andrew Lansley, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, David Cameron and Liam Fox are all being canvassed as possible successors to Mr Howard.

Who will eventually win the prize depends in part on when the contest is held. If Mr Howard wins 100 seats more for the Tories in the election, he may not leave immediately - a delay that is bound to benefit younger candidates such as Mr Cameron.

But , for now, he cannot afford to have his leadership blighted by the jockeying for position that did for his predecessors. Refreshed by the Tuscan sun, Mr Howard will need to restore his authority or risk being seen as the biggest bedblocker of the lot.