Howard: I could be caretaker leader if we lose election

Michael Howard hinted yesterday he could end up being a "caretaker" Tory leader if the party failed to regain power at the next general election.

He will make a speech in south London this afternoon, setting out his vision for the Tories after his widely expected election unopposed as party leader at lunchtime.

The leader-in-waiting, who is 62, appeared to recognise yesterday that he might only have one shot at becoming Prime Minister. Asked on Sky News whether he might fight one general election as leader and then hand over to a younger person, he replied: "I am obviously not going to go on and on and on, and self-evidently I am not going to be leader of this party for 20 years. We'll see. But the immediate goal on which we have to concentrate all our efforts is to win an election which may be just 18 months away - for not our sake, but for the sake of the country."

He suggested he had "mellowed" since his spell as a Home Secretary in the 1990s under John Major. Although crime fell during his tenure, he admitted: "I recognise that not everybody saw it like that and that I wasn't a universally popular Home Secretary."

Mr Howard is unlikely to announce his Shadow Cabinet today so that his appointments do not overshadow his first speech as Tory leader. Yesterday, he hinted Tory heavyweights such as Kenneth Clarke and Michael Portillo would have a role to play outside his Shadow Cabinet, possibly as part of a campaign team of "wise old heads." He said: "There are all sorts of ways that people can become part of our Conservative team."

Iain Duncan Smith, who was ousted as Tory leader, pledged his "100 per cent backing" for Mr Howard when he chaired his final meeting of his Shadow Cabinet last night.

He said there would be no "carping from the sidelines" once a successor was appointed. He believed the party could now be brought together to take the fight to a "failing Labour Government". Shadow ministers banged the table in approval.

The brief meeting, lasting between 10 and 15 minutes, heard tributes to the man who lost the faith of Conservative MPs, led by the leader of the Tories in the House of Lords, Lord Strathclyde. He said Mr Duncan Smith had left a legacy of an impressive policy programme and had changed the way the party selected its candidates. He also highlighted Mr Duncan Smith's campaign to help the disadvantaged.

Mr Howard has said he wants his election to be subject to a "ratification" ballot of the Tories' 300,000 members. But if there is only one nomination by noon, he becomes leader of the party as of right.

Yesterday, Mr Howard, who would become the first Jewish Prime Minister since Benjamin Disraeli if the Tories won the election, said of his religion: "I suppose it is yet a further example of the diversity of our country, the rich ethnic mix which we now have. It is something I think that people are learning to celebrate. I think that is part of what makes this country such a wonderful country."

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