Michael Howard could be crowned Tory leader without any opposition under secret plans being drawn up by allies to offer his rivals key jobs in the Shadow Cabinet.
David Davis, Mr Howard's most dangerous opponent, is being lined up for the combined post of Deputy Leader and shadow Foreign Secretary in an attempt to persuade him not to run, one of Mr Howard's supporters told The Independent yesterday.
If Mr Davis refused the offer, Mr Howard's allies believe the shadow Chancellor could win the overwhelming backing of MPs, which would make him favourite to win a ballot of party members. The so-called unity cabinet is also expected to see Oliver Letwin made shadow Chancellor, Tim Yeo appointed party chairman and Michael Ancram moved to shadow Defence Secretary.
Key public service posts would remain unchanged, with Liam Fox staying at health, Damien Green at education and David Willetts at social services. According to the "back of the envelope" list, Theresa May would be offered the position of Culture Secretary, while Caroline Spelman could become Trade and Industry Secretary. Crucially, both Michael Portillo and Kenneth Clarke would be asked to make public statements supporting the new leader and in effect uniting the party for the first time since 1997. Neither is likely to want a job in the new Shadow Cabinet.
The "coronation deal", which could be enacted soon after Mr Duncan Smith resigned, would remove the need for a lengthy and divisive leadership ballot of MPs and 300,000 party members.
If any of Mr Howard's rivals refused to take part in a deal, the Shadow Chancellor's allies are warning them that he could humiliate them by gaining the overwhelming support of MPs in a vote. "If Michael gets more than 100 MPs backing him in the first round of a ballot and Davis and any others get around 25, that would send a powerful message to the party," one MP said.
Several MPs said yesterday that the shadow Chancellor was "the best option" for a bloodless succession should Mr Duncan Smith be forced to quit.
"Michael would give us our confidence back, he would give Blair a real run for his money while uniting the party," one backbencher said. Supporters say that Mr Howard's age, at 62, could reassure his younger rivals that they would have another chance to become leader.
But support is far from unanimous and some MPs pointed out that Mr Howard might not go down well with members of the public who associate him with the Major Government's failures, not to mention Ann Widdecombe's infamous claim that he had "something of the night" about him.
One crucial problem with the coronation idea is that Mr Davis could win a ballot of the party rank and file even if he came second in the MPs' ballot. "If you've got your best ever chance of being leader and you think the members would back you, why would you give it up?" said another MP. Mr Clarke may also be unwilling to give his support to a man with whom he had less than ideal relations in government and who is staunchly anti-euro.Reuse content