Michael Howard faces an aggressive "decapitation" campaign by the Liberal Democrats at the next election, designed to leave the Conservative Party leaderless.
If Mr Howard wins the Tory leadership crown, Liberal Democrat strategists are planning to launch a by-election style blitz on his Folkestone and Hythe constituency in an attempt to persuade Labour voters to switch their vote to the Liberal Democrats and throw out one of the last leading Thatcherite figures.
Mr Howard has a majority of 5,907 over Peter Carroll. But the Liberal Democrats hope that Labour's 9,260 supporters can be mobilised to oust Mr Howard and deal a severe blow to the Tory leadership.
Lord Rennard, the Liberal Democrats' head of strategy and campaigns, said the party was aiming to repeat its spectacular coup against the Tories in 1992, when Don Foster defeated Chris Patten in Bath when he was the Conservvative Party chairman. Lord Rennard said the party was encouraged by the local election result in May, which saw Liberal Democrats take the local Shepway council from the Conservatives.
Lord Rennard, who masterminded the party's spectacular victory over Labour at last month's Brent East by-election, said: "There is a 20 per cent Labour vote in the constituency. No Labour voters will be able to resist the temptation of switching their vote to the Lib Dems to throw out Mr Howard.
"Once we can show we are a contender we will get votes, when we have pushed the other candidate into third place."
He said the local party had already started work on an intensive campaign in the seat, and warned that the pressures of Tory leadership could loosen Mr Howard's grip on local support.
The Liberal Democrats are already aiming at a group of leading Conservative MPs, including David Davis, the shadow Deputy Prime Minister, Theresa May, the party chairman, and Tim Collins, the shadow Transport Secretary.
The party is making an electoral push against Mr Davis in his Haltemprice and Howden constituency in Yorkshire. The Liberal Democrats cut Mr Davis's majority from 7,514 to 1,903 votes in 2001 and his constituency has been selected as a top six target. Mrs May's Maidenhead seat is also on the Liberal Democrats' radar.
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