Desperate IDS makes his last stand

MPs say leader will be out 'within two days';

Opponents confident of crucial 25 signatures;

Michael Howard tipped as likely successor
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The death agony of Iain Duncan Smith's leadership of the Conservative Party will be over within two days, his opponents confidently predicted at the weekend.

The embattled Tory leader is heading a weekend "media blitz" in what many think will be the final attempt to save his leadership. His enemies are convinced that more than 25 MPs will have made up their minds by tomorrow to sign letters calling for a vote on his future. A senior Tory said: "I thought it would take two or three weeks, but I now think he'll be gone by Tuesday. There will be well over 25 signatures."

If that figure is reached, the choice facing Mr Duncan Smith will be to bow out with as much dignity as he can or face the ignominy of being sacked by his fellow MPs. His closest advisers have warned him that he is unlikely to survive a vote of no confidence. One prediction is that he could lose by six to one.

Five members of Mr Duncan Smith's front bench team, all shadow ministers but not in the shadow Cabinet, met privately last week to discuss whether they should resign and join calls for the leader to be sacked. A shadow minister said: "Call me old-fashioned, but I don't think I should write a letter calling for a vote of confidence in the leader while I'm on the front bench. We all agreed we would have to resign. I haven't done that yet, but I have informed my party chairman that there may come a point when I might."

But if the stakes are high for the embattled party leader, his opponents also know that they risk a backlash from increasingly frustrated party members unless they either strike quickly or fall in behind Mr Duncan Smith.

John Major, whose last years in 10 Downing Street were made miserable by right-wing rebels, challenged the plotters yesterday to come out into the open or stop undermining the leader.

The former prime minister told BBC's Today programme: "There is a straightforward and an honourable way to address this problem ... If it is their view that the leader shouldn't continue, then they should tell the leader face to face.

"What they emphatically should not do is go out and tell everybody else that, because not only are they undermining the leader, they are undermining the whole of the party."

MPs who were sounding out the views of party members over the weekend reported a mixed reaction, with some saying that they were appalled by the disloyalty, while others were saying he had to go.

There was also bemusement at a statement issued by the whips' office pledging "total loyalty". One MP said: "It was as if the Guards had put out a statement saying that they're royalists. It's a sign of desperation."

Far from reassuring his supporters, the pledge appeared to reinforce suspicions that the whips are preparing for his resignation. The Chief Whip, David Maclean is a long-standing ally of the shadow Chancellor, Michael Howard, who is now seen as the most likely successor.