Now they are not even granting Howard the mercy of stabbing him in the back

As Tory MPs ritually savage their leader, Andy McSmith and Francis Elliott report on the groups vying for supremacy in the party
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Indy Politics

The Conservative Party used to boast that loyalty to its leader was its "secret weapon". That idea fell by the wayside when Margaret Thatcher was brought down 15 years ago. Since then, the party has been a cauldron of plots against one leader after another.

The Conservative Party used to boast that loyalty to its leader was its "secret weapon". That idea fell by the wayside when Margaret Thatcher was brought down 15 years ago. Since then, the party has been a cauldron of plots against one leader after another.

But last week's events were too public to be a plot. Michael Howard, the latest stricken Tory leader, could not really complain of being stabbed in the back, with his colleagues lining up to do it to his face.

Quentin Davies, one of the more independent-minded Tories, looked his leader in the eye at a fraught meeting on Wednesday and told him that if he stayed on until autumn, as he intends, he would bring "paralysis" to his party. Mr Davies urged him to go now, so that a new leader could be in place by July.

He was echoed by Ian Taylor, from the pro-EU wing of the party, who told him to "spend the summer with Sandra [Howard] and the kids". Sitting next to Mr Taylor was the former leader Iain Duncan Smith, sacked in a coup 18 months ago. He watched with detached calm as his successor's authority ebbed away.

If anything, an earlier meeting on Tuesday was even worse. Mr Howard had summoned Tory MPs to present them with a plan to revise party rules, in the hope of bringing the party closer to the voters. Instead, he opened a gulf between himself and the MPs he is supposed to lead.

One Conservative MP remarked: "I once saw a major-general at cadet college completely lose his authority during the course of a meeting, and that's what happened to Michael. Within an hour his authority melted away like snow on a hot stove."

Anger had been building all day, because Tory MPs knew they were going to be presented with extensive proposals to change the party rules, but they did not know what the proposals were, or why Mr Howard should take it upon himself to overhaul the party when he has already announced his intention to quit.

Many thought he should confine himself to a change to the rules for electing a new leader - which most Tories believe is sensible, after the Duncan Smith experience - and leave other decisions to his successor. There was a feeling that it was all going to take too long.

Unfortunately, both Mr Howard and Raymond Monbiot - leader of the Tory grassroots activists, who was presenting the proposals - misread the mood as Tories crowded into a Westminster committee room.

Mr Monbiot and other leading volunteers had spent months working on a set of proposed changes to the party organisation. The board that represents the party's grassroots had met on Monday and had unanimously agreed a 20-page document that they wanted put out for consultation as soon as possible.

It was never part of their plan that the consultation should happen while the party was in the throes of a leadership contest, but Mr Monbiot insisted that the changes must go ahead without delay if the party was to be in the right shape for the next election. Mr Howard backed him up.

That only exacerbated suspicions that MPs were being railroaded into agreeing an unnecessarily complicated set of reforms by a leader who was already seen as having a dictatorial streak in him- especially over the way he ended the political career of the party's former vice-chairman, Howard Flight, for remarks made just before the election.

After Mr Monbiot's presentation, the former agriculture minister Douglas Hogg launched an attack on what he saw as an attempt to give the leader more power to discipline rebel MPs.

Mr Hogg is a serial rebel, but it must have given Mr Howard a jolt when his own former parliamentary aide, Alistair Burt, joined in the criticisms. The meeting culminated in a ferocious attack by Edward Leigh, from the traditional right wing of the party.

"Edward Leigh's intervention was the Exocet," one very senior Tory said the next day. "After it went off, there was a hole below the water line - glug, glug, glug!"

None of these attacks came from the small group of right-wing Tories who make up the core support for Mr Howard's most likely successor, David Davis (pictured), although the shadow Home Secretary has more reason than anybody to want Mr Howard out now. The changes Mr Howard wants to introduce would not help Mr Davis's chances of winning a leadership election - which is part of Mr Howard's reason for introducing them. A long delay might give a younger rival, such as the shadow Secretary of State for Education, David Cameron, time to gather support.

But Mr Davis is discouraging talk of a summer coup to push Mr Howard out of office before he is ready to leave.

At the end of the week, Mr Howard was insisting that he will stay on to deliver one more leader's speech to the party's annual conference in October. But he will have to face up to the thought that he is the party leader only in name. The party he once ruled with a rod of iron is out of his control.

THE TORY TRIBES

THE BOTHER-BOYS

Who are they?

The right-wing authoritarian rump from whose ranks the last two leaders have emerged. Often first elected under Margaret Thatcher, they continue to cherish her memory.

Who belongs?

Members more likely to hold "robust" views on social issues such as gay marriage and immigration than in other tribes, although some now accept times have changed.

Headmen?

Michael Howard's decision to join the ancestors clears the way for David Davis, while Liam Fox waits beyond the camp fire.

Leader preference?

Whoever wins must keep this tribe on board. Davis edges it.

THE VULCANS

Who are they?

Much smaller breakaway group of right-wing libertarians prepared to follow logic to far-distant political planets. Also obsessed with the Thatcher legacy, they choose to emphasise ideology.

Who belongs?

Most likely to adopt extreme positions on issues such as tax (as low as possible) and hard drugs (legalised and subject to market forces).

Headmen?

John Redwood is their undisputed leader now that former cadets Michael Portillo and Alan Duncan have defected.

Leader preference?

Redwood, but would settle for Davis.

THE TIELESS WONDERS

Who are they?

They live in Notting Hill - or, more usually, wish they did - are well connected in the media and have modish views on social issues. Typically a younger crowd. Their critics say they value style over substance.

Who belongs?

A very good question - and one they will have to answer if one of their number is to assume the crown. They are more right wing than their open-necked appearance would suggest.

Headmen?

David Cameron is true W11. Andrew Lansley and Tim Yeo are at the wrong end of Ladbroke Grove.

Leader preference?

Cameron all the way.

THE BLUEBLOODS

Who are they?

Keepers of the aristocratic rootstock of Conservatism, this dwindling band of toffs has begun to huddle together for warmth against the forces of modernity.

Who belongs?

Wild eccentricities notwithstanding, they tend to espouse an older, gentler form of one-nation Conservatism that it would be far too vulgar to properly define.

Headmen?

Michael Ancram, Nicholas Soames, Lord Strathclyde.

Leader preference?

One might expect them to rally to Sir Malcolm Rifkind but many will go for Davis.

THE HUSH PUPPIES

Who are they?

What is left of the Europhile, "wet" left of the party has, for many years, been the weakest of the Tory tribes, left to wander in the wilderness.

Who belongs?

They believe in proper engagement in the European Union, the provision of universal benefits and properly funded public services.

Headmen?

Kenneth Clarke is the titular chief but in his long absences the tribe has begun looking to Damian Green.

Leader preference?

While Clarke hums and haws, there is some evidence Davis is courting his lost sheep.

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