Howard to quit when leadership election rules change

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Michael Howard dropped a bombshell on his party and fired the gun to choose his successor by announcing his decision to quit the Conservative Party leadership sooner rather than later.

Mr Howard said the contest would not happen until new leadership election rules were adopted. He pleaded with rival camps not to return to the "bickering and backstabbing" that troubled the party in the past.

"The Conservative Party can hold its head up high," he told supporters. "We have begun the process of rebuilding our party." Continuing that task will fall to someone else - the fourth Tory leader in as many years.

Mr Howard said that at 63 he was "simply too old" to fight the next election. "So if I can't fight ... as leader of our party, I believe it is better for me to stand aside sooner ... so that the party can choose someone who can," he said.

Friends of Kenneth Clarke and William Hague said they would not run, but rival campaign teams of potential candidates are jostling for support. David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, emerged as the favourite. George Osborne and David Cameron, close friends who are regarded as the "Tony Blair and Gordon Brown" of their generation in the Tory party, were privately discussing their options. Allies fear they could knock each other out, unless they come to a similar "Granita-style'' deal to Mr Blair and Mr Brown for one to go forward as the candidate.

Liam Fox, the party's joint chairman, will effectively launch his campaign next week with a speech to a right-wing think-tank. Sir Malcolm Rikfind, who returned to Westminster in Michael Portillo's former Kensington and Chelsea seat, quickly denied that he was too old to run.

Mr Hague, who may be recalled to the Shadow Cabinet, will not run. A senior Conservative said: "He is making a lot of money in the private sector, and he doesn't want it any more."