New leader now, urges top Tory

David Davis's bid for the Tory leadership receives a major boost today as one of Michael Howard's frontbenchers calls for him to be replaced as leader within weeks.

Writing in The Independent on Sunday, Richard Spring, shadow Paymaster General, urges his fellow MPs to move as quickly as possible to appoint a new leader by general acclamation.

Mr Howard, who was himself elected unopposed, must be replaced if the Conservative Party is not to be fractured by a lengthy leadership dispute, says Mr Spring, who is MP for Suffolk West. He continues: "I cannot imagine anything more negative and distracting than a parade of candidates setting out their stalls.

"Our members ache to see unity. I hope, therefore, that our new party leader will be chosen - if possible by acclamation." The call amounts to a declaration of support for Mr Davis, the strong favourite and only possible candidate who could be chosen without a contest.

Mr Spring, on the centre-left of his party, makes clear his preference as he calls on Tory MPs to once again choose a leader "successfully tested in battle, with support right across the party spectrum in and out of Parliament".

A number of Mr Davis's Shadow Cabinet colleagues are seeking to check his leadership bandwagon, however. Oliver Letwin is to call on Tories to decide the party's direction before it chooses its leader in a speech next week.

His first intervention in the race will inevitably be seen to favour other candidates such as David Cameron and Sir Malcolm Rifkind. David Willetts also last night pressed Tories to take their time in selecting who should lead them.

"We have a unique opportunity to think seriously about the way forward, and to do so without accusations of disloyalty to the leader, because the leader has specifically encouraged this debate. I'm focusing on something much bigger than the leadership speculation, which is what the Conservatives stand for," Mr Willetts said.

Mr Willetts is planning a series of speeches on the party's future. Last week, he delivered a lecture to the Social Market Foundation calling for "Conservatism with a smile, not a frown", and decrying the pessimism of those who think that greater social freedom automatically leads to family breakdown.