Dissident Tory MPs said yesterday that they would not be bullied into dropping their campaign to oust Iain Duncan Smith, after implicit threats that they could be deselected.
Although no figure has been disclosed, the rebels believe that at least six MPs might have already written to Sir Michael Spicer, chairman of the 1922 Committee, demanding a vote of confidence in Mr Duncan Smith. And they believe that at least two more will add their names next week. Under Conservative Party rules, 25 signatures are needed for such a vote to go ahead.
Within minutes of the Tory leader's speech to the party's Blackpool conference on Thursday, David Maclean, the Chief Whip, sought to head off a rebellion when MPs return to Westminster on Tuesday. He will call in the hard core of rebels to tell them to stop their plotting.
Yesterday, two of the MPs expected to be summoned told The Independent that they would not be cowed into submission and would press ahead with their attempt to trigger a confidence vote. One said: "This is all counter-productive. I am not going to be put on the rack by the Chief Whip. If I am called in, I will go, but the conversation will be one-sided. I will listen, but it won't affect my decision."
Another of the "usual suspects" seeking to oust Mr Duncan Smith said he would tell Mr Maclean "not to be so silly". He added: "It's not just IDS who is in a desperate state, it's us who are in a desperate state. I just hope we deal with the issue before it is too late."
The rebels admit that Mr Duncan Smith might have won a temporary reprieve after receiving a rapturous response from delegates in the conference hall. But some MPs reported yesterday that the reaction among party members who did not go to Blackpool was more mixed, adding that some saw his unprecedented personal attack on Tony Blair as "over the top" and "desperate". Another MP said: "We have become the nasty party again. It might work in the conference hall, but it won't do anything in the country."
Tory MPs - including Mr Duncan Smith - are anxiously awaiting a new crop of opinion polls to see whether his Blackpool performance has improved his and the party's ratings. Before the conference, the Tory leader was looking for a five-point boost to the party's standing. MPs are consulting their constituency associations this weekend. Some fear the Tory high command will encourage loyalist activists to deselect them if they demand a confidence vote. One said: "I still think things will come to a head sooner rather than later. But the process may take a couple of weeks because MPs had to first square their plans to depose the leader with their associations."
Mr Duncan Smith's hopes of silencing his critics were dashed yesterday when Michael Portillo described the Blackpool conference as the worst in living memory. The former cabinet minister said the event was "horrible, dejected, miserable, talking about the leadership the whole time - it was the worst conference anyone could remember."
He added: "I arrived and somebody said it was going very well. But he didn't mean that the conference was going well, he meant that his own agenda for changing the leadership was going well." But he did not believe Mr Duncan Smith would be forced out.
The Tory leader dismissed Mr Portillo's criticism, saying the conference was successful. "I don't know who he met. The mood of the delegates was very good indeed."
Interviewed on BBC Radio 4, Mr Duncan Smith acknowledged that what he called "a small number" of "malcontents" had set out to "say something different" at the conference.
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