Michael Howard has decided that the next Conservative leader should be someone young enough to be his son, according to a close colleague.
This would mean passing over the generation of would-be leaders that includes his deputy Michael Ancram, the shadow Home Secretary David Davis, and the former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who is due to return to Parliament at the next election.
But Mr Howard believes that the party will maximise its chances of success if he hands the baton on to one of the younger MPs who first entered the Commons at the 2001 election, leaving them untainted by earlier failure.
David Cameron, the 38-year-old MP for Witney, is now in "pole position" as the only one of his generation already in the shadow cabinet. He is head of policy co-ordination, and is to be given a leading role in the election campaign, placing him opposite Labour's campaign co-ordinator Alan Milburn.
George Osborne, the 33- year-old MP for Tatton, is also widely tipped for promotion. His current position as deputy to the shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin. Mark Field, the 40-year-old MP for the Cities of London and Westminster and a Tory whip, is less well known, but is seen by some as a potential leader.
Officially, Mr Howard and his staff refuse to talk about the possibility of defeat, but privately the Tories have studied current opinion polls and recognise that Labour is likely to secure another five years in power at the next general election, probably in May.
Mr Howard, who is 63, is expected to stay in office for two or three years after the next election even if the Tories are heavily defeated, instead of precipitating the party into an immediate leadership contest as did John Major in 1997, and William Hague in 2001.
One leading Tory said: "One effect of the recent polls is to repress expectations so much that if we come back with anything over 200 MPs, Michael will have been seen to have done rather well. He won't be under any pressure to go early. If we are within striking distance, he may even want to stay the full Parliament."
Mr Letwin gave in to right-wing pressure yesterday by giving a "cast-iron" promise that a Tory government would cut taxes, which many Conservatives see as a tactical error.