Howard admits to mistakes but will not resign early

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Indy Politics

Michael Howard has rebuffed demands for him to stand down as Tory leader this summer and insisted that he will carry on in his post until December.

He did, however, make a partial climbdown over his planned reforms to the Conservative Party in an attempt to head off moves for him to force him out of his post in July. In a letter to his MPs yesterday, he admitted the launch of the party's reform package "could have been better handled" and offered separate votes on a shake-up of the party's organisation and the new rules for electing its leader.

The conciliatory tone was designed to cool the anger of the Tory MPs who claim he presented them with a "take it or leave it" package. They fear his "long goodbye" will plunge the party into seven months of internal wrangling and let the Government off the hook.

His limited concessions may not, however, be enough to persuade his critics to drop their threat to oust him in July by triggering an early leadership election.

Mr Howard stopped short of meeting the demands of his backbenchers, who have been in open revolt at two heated meetings this week amid signs that his authority has waned.

The critics want the internal reforms shelved until his successor is chosen, which would allow the leadership election to be speeded up. His letter offered to "decouple" the votes on the reforms and the leadership rules but left the content of the package and the timetable for his departure unchanged.

Recalling that all sides had urged him not to call an immediate leadership contest after the general election, Mr Howard said: "I believe our party should be given time to reflect on our three successive election defeats before electing a new leader. This has the added advantage of enabling the party to consider whether or not to amend its constitution before any contest takes place."

He added: "I continue to believe this timetable - with a leadership election after the party conference in October - is in the best interests of our party. I do not, therefore, intend to resign at an earlier date."

His letter promises MPs more talks on the reforms and said they would enjoy an equal say to party activists when the organisational changes are voted on in September. Although Mr Howard won a short breathing space as the Commons began a 10-day Whitsun break last night, the doubts about his preferred timetable may resurface when MPs return.

He received a boost when allies of David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary and front-runner to succeed him, signalled they would not seek to trigger an early contest by gathering the signatures of the 30 MPs needed to force one.

Friends of Mr Davis said he had nothing to fear from a delayed election - despite their suspicion that Mr Howard wants to give David Cameron, the 38-year-old shadow Education Secretary, time to emerge as a real challenger to Mr Davis.

The pressure for an early contest grew yesterday. Lord Tebbit, the former Tory chairman, said it would be "highly desirable" for Mr Howard to leave his post before the start of the summer, allowing his successor to go into this October's conference as leader and then reform the party organisation.

Quentin Davies, a former shadow minister, said: "A great party, certainly a party in opposition, can't just go into limbo for six months, it can't go into paralysis. That is absurd," he said. "It is really up to us to make sure that we get a new leader and get the party moving again."

The Tory MP Bill Cash, said: "The arrangements and proposals for the party rules have turned into a huge mess and a lot of people are extremely angry."