Moves to depose Iain Duncan Smith as Tory leader will finally get underway next week when a group of rebel MPs meet to discuss tactics to canvass support to replace him.
Senior Conservative sources say they have set themselves a deadline of next February to unseat Mr Duncan Smith, but a small "inner core" of his critics are planning to circulate a letter to fellow MPs calling on him to step down.
The aim of the plan is to present the letter to the Tory leader and to allow him to resign gracefully instead of being forced out after a vote of no confidence triggered through formal party procedures.
However, as he was directly elected by more than two-thirds of the party membership, Mr Duncan Smith is unlikely to go without a fight and will probably urge his opponents to make themselves public.
Several MPs claimed privately at the party conference in Blackpool yesterday that 15 of them are ready to sign a letter calling for a new leader, with a further eight considering such a move. That would mean the rebels are just two short of the 25 names they need to trigger the leadership process.
Although many dissidents have been grumbling for months about their leader, only Crispin Blunt, a former shadow minister, has publicly asserted that Mr Duncan Smith is not a credible future prime minister.
In the first signs of a co-ordinated attempt to act, several former ministers, each with the backing of their constituency associations, will lead the core of dissidents next week.
One MP said last night that he was ready to play the role of "Brutus" and go public in the next few days if his local association backed him.
Another said that, while Mr Duncan Smith would win the usual ovation for his speech tomorrow, the battle would begin when the Commons returns next week. "This is not the time to kick the basin, but the time is coming," he warned.
One former minister said: "The emerging consensus at the conference is that we could not fail to do better under a different leader. To be frank, we cannot go on as we are."
Mr Duncan Smith's allies denied reports that he will bring forward a reshuffle of his frontbench team in an attempt to sharpen up the Tories' performance. They said there would be no shake-up this year. However, the Tory leader has summoned his shadow cabinet to a special meeting tonight to brief it on his speech for tomorrow.
John Maples, a former Treasury minister, won applause when he told a private meeting of local Tory association chairmen that the opposition was nowhere near where Labour was before the 1997 election, citing the party's third place in the Brent East by-election.
Archie Norman, the former head of Asda and ex-Tory frontbencher, said the party was in a "pretty parlous state" and that some of his fellow MPs no longer "have their hearts" in the job.Reuse content