Howard turns to Maude but polls are unimpressed

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Michael Howard, the new Conservative leader, is spending the weekend putting together a new shadow Cabinet he hopes will put an end to the infighting which has held back the party's chance of political recovery.

Following the announcement by Michael Portillo that he will be standing down at the next election - and so unable to accept a role - Mr Howard is expected to offer a senior post to the former shadow chancellor, Francis Maude, who ran Mr Portillo's unsuccessful leadership campaign in 2001.

But the new Tory chief could run into flak from women politicians if, as expected, he demotes the party chairman Theresa May, so that her place can be taken by a male politician with closer links to the new leader.

The Conservatives have refused to resort to all-women shortlists, the approach taken by Labour before the 1997 general election, which helped push the number of women Labour MPs up from 38 to 102. There are 13 women Tory MPs. But if the polls are anything to go by, Mr Howard will need all the help he can muster. An ICM poll for The News of the World showed the Conservatives slipping two points since replacing Iain Duncan Smith as leader with Mr Howard on Thursday. The survey puts the Tories at 31 per cent, trailing eight points behind Labour. The Liberal Democrats scored 22 per cent.

If translated into actual votes the figures would provide a third Labour landslide in an election with Tony Blair losing just two seats.