Special Report: Out of the shadows - the inside story of the Tory coronation

It seemed so bloodless and quick, but stealth and cunning lay behind Howard's coup, writes Andy McSmith
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Indy Politics

The setting was not as glamorous as Granita restaurant, but the meeting between two ambitious members of the Shadow Cabinet on Wednesday evening may turn out to have been as significant for the Conservatives as the dinner at which Gordon Brown agreed to let Tony Blair lead Labour.

The euphoria expressed by Tories this weekend suggests many believe that they have just found their next prime minister - or at least someone who can save their party from oblivion.

The venue for the meeting was an office in the Commons, the time was soon after 6pm on Wednesday, less than an hour before it was publicly confirmed that the Tories were seeking a new leader.

During the near hysteria which overtook the Tories in the first three days of last week, Michael Howard had stuck to the principle that in moments of crisis, it is best to say what you want to say and then keep quiet. While other Tory MPs gathered in little huddles to plot or exchange gossip, Mr Howard was to be seen walking with feline steps through the corridors of the Commons, head to one side, a slightly bashful half smile on his face, alone.

Did he plot? No, he refused even to discuss the prospect that the unhappy leadership of Iain Duncan Smith might be drawing to an ignominious end. When people representing David Davis or some other wannabe leader approached those who were presumed to be in the Howard camp to discuss a possible deal, they were firmly sent on their way.

But by early evening, when all votes had been cast and it only remained for them to be counted, Mr Howard paid a courtesy call to Mr Davis in his office in the Speaker's Courtyard of the House of Commons. His opening words were along the lines of: "I believe you wanted to speak to me, David."

If he had dropped by the day before, Mr Davis might have demanded a deal like the one Gordon Brown reached with Tony Blair at Granita, or the one he himself had made with Iain Duncan Smith two years earlier, in which he traded his support for a promise of a job as party chairman. Instead the conversation was short and to the point. Mr Davis announced that he was not going to contest the leadership, but would support Michael Howard. Mr Howard thanked him, and left. No terms were discussed and no deal was struck.

Mr Davis had been under intense pressure for days. He was being lobbied by one group of supporters, including the shadow Leader of the Commons, Eric Forth, who wanted him to fight and win. Only a few hours earlier, at the end of Prime Minister's Questions, Davis's people had poured into the lobby alongside the debating chamber in what was clearly an organised operation, to tell journalists that the contest was definitely on. They hinted that Davis might even announce his candidature that same evening.

There may have been an element of bluff or self-deception in this operation, because Davis himself had contacted Michael Howard's main backer, Oliver Letwin, the previous day to hint that he was thinking of pulling out. He was being advised to do so by many of his own supporters, such as the ex-whip Derek Conway - one of the main authors of Duncan Smith's fall - who thought Mr Davis could win but feared that he would emerge from a damaging contest with no more authority than the hapless Duncan Smith.

Some of Mr Howard's supporters take an ungenerous view of this gesture. One said: "David Davis is irrelevant. After all the disloyalty to John Major, to William Hague and particularly to Iain Duncan Smith, he's dead."

But one of the party whips, whose job is to know what fellow MPs are thinking, said: "I believe that David could have won, but the damage that would have done to the party might have been fatal. In the end, the party was more important than the individual."

Having dithered for six agonised weeks over whether to remove Iain Duncan Smith, his fellow Tory MPs moved with remarkable speed once it had been announced at 7pm that his woebegone term as leader was finally over.

David Davis's backers poured out of Committee Room 14 as soon as the result was announced, to tell journalists to be on the pavement outside the St Stephen's Gate entrance to the House at 7.45pm for an announcement by their man. In fact, when the moment came, crowds of journalists, MPs, camera crews and bemused members of the public were crowded against the crash barrier, but Mr Davis was missing. He arrived a few minutes late.

At almost the same time, the Chief Whip David Maclean, informed a shattered Mr Duncan Smith that he was resigning. Mr Maclean is an old friend of Michael Howard and would have been a formidable campaign organiser, had one been needed. Earlier in the afternoon, at a crowded meeting of MPs at which Mr Duncan Smith made his final plea to save his job, Stephen Dorrell, a former health secretary, was seen having a quiet word with Michael Howard. The two were not natural ideological soul mates, Mr Dorrell being from the pro-European left of the Tory party. But he had made up his mind that the only leader capable of uniting the party was Michael Howard, and told him that if Mr Duncan Smith was ousted, as expected, he would be making contact to offer his backing.

"I think I was talking about this as long ago as last year. Obviously there were innumerable discussions in dinner groups and so on about 'what would happen if' and this has been my consistent view," he explained.

His offer was taken up faster than he expected, and before the day was out Mr Dorrell was outside the Commons, standing alongside Liam Fox and Oliver Letwin, calling, in effect, for a coronation rather than an election.

The purpose of all this rush was to put all the other potential candidates under irresistible pressure to pull out. The party's deputy leader Michael Ancram, for instance, had planned to run, and Alan Duncan, who managed William Hague's leadership campaign in 1997, had offered to be his manager. Mr Ancram pulled out early on Thursday.

So by the time Michael Howard announced his candidature to an apparently ecstatic audience in the Saatchi Gallery on the South Bank on Thursday afternoon, no one present seriously doubted that they were listening to the next Conservative leader.

The only outstanding business was to square his old friend and rival Ken Clarke, whom he saw later the same afternoon. In the lift on the way down to Mr Howard's office, Mr Clarke was still asserting that he might run - but the following morning, he emerged, resplendent in a fedora, to announce that he was keeping out of a contest which he knew he could not win.

That evening, he addressed a Conservative dinner at the Villiers Hotel in Buckingham. "He was in absolutely sparkling form, and very positive about Michael Howard, so I presume that discussion with Michael had broadly satisfied him," the Buckingham MP John Bercow said yesterday.

One of the plotters' misplaced fears was that party members would object to being presented with a leader, denying them their right to vote - but back in their constituencies yesterday Tory MPs were reporting that the membership was heartily relieved that the parliamentary party had sorted itself out.

David Davis found himself flooded with messages congratulating him on his role in the palace coup. "I don't know how to cope with all this adulation," he told a friend yesterday. The advice he got, which might apply equally to the whole Conservative Party in its current mood of euphoria, is to enjoy it while it lasts.

Tuesday 2.30pm

Facing a vote of confidence in his leadership, Iain Duncan Smith stands outside Conservative Central Office and says he will "submit my name for a renewed mandate to lead the party to the general election, and to win". He is flanked by colleagues, including Michael Howard. The vote was triggered by at least 25 MPs writing to Sir Michael Spicer, chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers.

Wednesday 7pm

The vote is lost, by 75 to 90. Dignified in defeat, Mr Duncan Smith appears in the cold, dark night with his wife, Betsy, by his side. "The parliamentary party has spoken," he tells reporters. "The announcement has been made, and I will stand down as leader when a successor has finally been chosen. I will give that leader my absolute loyalty and support, whoever it is."

Wednesday 7.45pm

Within the hour, David Davisannounces he will not be standing. "For the sake of the country and the Conservative Party I have decided to stand aside ... in favour of Michael Howard, who I believe will be well placed to unify the party and win the next election." A coronation now looks more likely than a leadership vote, with only Mr Howard's name being offered to party members for ratification.

Wednesday 8.15pm

Three prominent Tories from different wings of the party make a public appeal for the shadow chancellor to lead them. They are, from left, Stephen Dorrell, Liam Fox and Oliver Letwin. "We need ... a figure of authority, a figure of experience, a figure of competence," says Mr Dorrell. Dr Fox describes Mr Howard as "a political heavyweight" who can "land a few blows on Tony Blair".

Thursday 3.15pm

Mr Howard declares his willingness to stand for the leadership. "I will lead this party from the centre," says the former right-wing Home Secretary. His press conference at the Saatchi Gallery is more like a victory celebration than the announcement of a candidacy. It looks highly unlikely that anyone will dare stand against him. Except, perhaps, his old rival Kenneth Clarke. . .

Friday 9am

The last big obstacle to Mr Howard's smooth progress is removed as Mr Clarke reveals that he will not stand. He has met Mr Howard, apparently to seek reassurances that the party's pro-Europe left will be represented in the new Shadow Cabinet. "I'm not going to give up any other of my bad habits, but coming second in Conservative leadership elections is something I don't intend to do."