Howard pressed to stay on for a year even if Tories lose

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Indy Politics

Michael Howard is expected to stay on as party leader for up to a year if the Tories lose the general election, after he was urged to prevent the Conservatives plunging into an immediate leadership contest.

Michael Howard is expected to stay on as party leader for up to a year if the Tories lose the general election, after he was urged to prevent the Conservatives plunging into an immediate leadership contest.

Senior Tories have asked Mr Howard to break with recent precedent by staying as leader to "steady the ship". In 1997, John Major resigned as Tory leader the day after the party lost power and William Hague quit the morning after its 2001 defeat. "The last two leaders didn't even do the dishes," one shadow minister said yesterday. "Michael has got the message that he shouldn't walk away but should hold things together."

The issue of whether Mr Howard should stay or go immediately causes intense debate in the margins of the party's Bournemouth conference. Although Mr Howard's speech on Tuesday raised his party's morale, many Tories acknowledge privately that they are unlikely to oust Labour at the election expected in May.

The senior Tories are worried that, exhausted after an election, the party might lurch into a leadership contest without a proper debate about its future direction. After Mr Hague left, Iain Duncan Smith was a surprise choice as successor but he was forced out by the party only two years later.

One senior figure said: "We need a cold, sober debate about the party's future. We should choose a leader on the basis of policy, not personality."

Shadow Cabinet ministers say that a contest to choose their fifth leader in 10 years would destabilise the party and make it more difficult to recover from a third successive defeat. "A number of us think it would be far better if Michael stays on for nine months or so," said one. "The last thing we need is for him to do another Hague." Other Tories say there would be no time to waste in modernising the party and want a new leader installed by the next conference, next October.

Supporters of David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, expect him to throw his hat in the ring immediately after the election, if Labour retains power. "I don't think Michael Howard will want to hang around after a defeat," a Davis ally said. "He will want to give the party the chance to pick a new leader and jump a generation."

The demand for a younger leader is seen as a sideswipe at Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary, who is expected to return to the Commons as MP for Kensington and Chelsea at the election.

The conference has been seen by some observers as an unofficial "beauty contest", with speeches from several potential leadership candidates including Mr Davis, Sir Malcolm, Liam Fox, the party's co-chairman, Andrew Lansley, the shadow Health Secretary, and Tim Yeo, the Transport and Environment spokesman.

Mr Howard, 63, is expected to leave after fighting just one election as leader. But some of his allies do not rule out him staying for a second contest if he reduces Labour's majority sharply. Last night the Tories published their "timetable for action", a mini-manifesto setting out 28 policies to be implemented within the first month of a Tory government. The conference ends today.

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