Howard shaken by MPs hostility over changes to Tory rule book

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Michael Howard last night faced open rebellion from his MPs as they reacted with fury to wide-ranging proposals to reform the party's constitution.

Michael Howard last night faced open rebellion from his MPs as they reacted with fury to wide-ranging proposals to reform the party's constitution.

The Conservative leader was said to be shaken after he faced groans from MPs during a heated meeting to discuss the plans .

Leading MPs expressed alarm at the package of proposals which would reform the rules governing the race to choose Mr Howard's successor and dramatically increase the power of the party leadership to deselect members of Parliament.

One MP said: "I have never seen a Conservative leader groaned at by the members before. You could feel Michael's authority oozing away."

Another said: "It was a bloodbath. It is safe to say there was an air of rebellion in the air. The chief whip can't take the whip away from all of us."

The atmosphere among Tory MPs was said to be "febrile" last night after the stormy hour-long meeting in a committee room off the medieval Westminster Hall, with MPs openly declaring the constitutional changes dead after the angry reaction of their colleagues.

The angry reaction throws doubt on Mr Howard's hopes of reforming the party's constitution in time before its conference in October.

Senior conservatives at the meeting said no MP spoke in support of Mr Howard's proposals after a lengthy presentation by Raymond Monbiot, chairman of the party's national convention.

Furious MPs accused Mr Howard of trying to force through a radical package of reforms without consulting his colleagues. One attacked as "draconian" proposals to increase the power of party headquarters over its MPs by allowing the party's governing board to order the deselection of sitting members if the leader withdrew the party whip.

Others condemned plans to change the leadership rules. Under the plans, 10 per cent of the party's MPs would have to nominate each leadership contender. If no candidate gained the support of a majority of MPs the party's 1,600-strong convention, made up of senior local activists, MPs and peers, would vote to shortlist two leadership candidates. In a final round MPs would be balloted on the final winner. But one MP said: "That would drive a wedge between the Parliamentary party and the voluntary party."

The changes form part of a proposed new Conservative Party constitution which could include a statement of fundamental party beliefs for the first time, including a commitment to serving the entire nation regardless of ethnic background, sex or religion.

Conservative MPs cheered Edward Leigh who attacked as "inexcusable" Mr Howard's decision to sack Arundel and South Downs MP Howard Flight.

Those at the packed meeting said MPs groaned when Mr Howard tried to defend his decision.

Douglas Hogg, the former Agriculture minister, led the opposition to the changes by MPs. Even loyalists demanded that Mr Howard "decouple" leadership rule changes from wider constitutional reform.

Other critics of Mr Howard's plans included Alastair Burt, a former aide to Mr Howard, and MPs John Maples, Andrew Robathan, John Hayes and Keith Simpson.

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