Plots thicken around embattled leader

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Indy Politics

The Tories' Blackpool conference has turned into an unofficial "beauty contest" for the potential candidates in a leadership election if Iain Duncan Smith is ousted.

All the possible runners deny any disloyalty, but allies of Mr Duncan Smith are furious that supporters of the alternative candidates have been promoting them in the margins of the conference.

Part of the Winter Gardens complex has been dubbed the "Members Lobby" as MPs shun the conference and discuss the leadership issue with grassroots activists and journalists. The endless gossip is seen as an attempt to destabilise Mr Duncan Smith so that a contest becomes inevitable. "Important policy announcements are being drowned out by noises off," said one Duncan Smith aide.

The suspicion in the Tory hierarchy is that three separate camps are stirring the pot - supporters of Michael Howard, David Davis and Michael Portillo. Soundings among MPs and constituency representatives in Blackpool this week suggest the two front-runners would be Mr Howard, the shadow Chancellor and Mr Davis, the shadow Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr Howard's stock is rising after strong performances against Gordon Brown and he is increasingly seen as a short-term leader who could cut Labour's huge majority at the next general election. There are signs that Mr Howard could win the backing of Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, who is thought unlikely to run himself.

Under Tory rules, the party's MPs choose two candidates, who then go into a ballot among the party's 300,000 members. The betting this week is that Mr Howard might top the MPs' poll, but Mr Davis couldwin the crucial members' ballot.

As a former Tory chairman, Mr Davis forged links with local activists during his time on the "rubber chicken" circuit. While Mr Howard, a former home secretary, is an "old face", Mr Davis would offer a fresh one and populist policies. Ann Widdecombe, the former minister who memorably said that Mr Howard had "something of the night" about him, could well return to haunt him during a leadership contest. She remains very popular among the party's grass roots.

Mr Portillo is unlikely to enter a leadership race, although some allies may press him to. The vacancy for a modernisers' candidate could be filled by Tim Yeo, the shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, who joined the beauty parade yesterday when he addressed the conference.

Kenneth Clarke, a former chancellor and the most prominent Tory left-winger, is thought unlikely to run. Significantly, he left Blackpool early and did not fulfil his usual engagement at the Tory Reform Group, and there is little sign that his supporters are plotting Mr Duncan Smith's downfall. Mr Clarke fears the Tory members would reject him for a third time because of his uncompromising pro-European views.

Other potential candidates include Liam Fox, the shadow Health Secretary and a right-winger, and Michael Ancram, the deputy Tory leader and shadow Foreign Secretary, who is seen by allies as a man to unite the party.

Theresa May, the Tory chairman, had been seen as a possible candidate but her star has waned since her "nasty party" speech at last year's conference.

Although there has been a growing feeling this week that Mr Duncan Smith's time is running out, his trump card may still be that there is no obvious alternative around whom his party could unite. It is hardly a vote of confidence, but he hopes it might be enough to save him.