Tories feud over rules for leadership election

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Michael Howard's plan for a smooth leadership transition was shattered last night after the first signs of Tory infighting over changes in the leadership selection rules threatened to destabilise the Tory party.

Michael Howard's plan for a smooth leadership transition was shattered last night after the first signs of Tory infighting over changes in the leadership selection rules threatened to destabilise the Tory party.

Allies of David Davis, a leading contender to succeed Mr Howard, made it clear that they would not tolerate a "stitch-up" in the rules that would make it harder for the shadow Home Secretary to be chosen as leader.

Amid fears that squabbling over the leadership rules could overshadow the first months of the new Parliament, a campaign was mounted last night by grass-roots activists to stop the members being robbed of their power to select the next leader.

Michael Howard is facing growing pressure to stay on for 18 months while a review of the Tories' failure to attract more voters is carried out.

Last night, Alan Duncan became the first of the potential candidates to speak out against the rule change. He said the party needed a thorough review of its appeal before any attempt to change the rules and hold a leadership contest.

In an interview with The Independent, Mr Duncan said: "I think it's a pity we are having a leadership contest or changing the rules. We need a year, if not two years, stripping ourselves down and building ourselves up again in terms of what are our values. I am against changing the rules for the leadership election. We need to trust the membership, and then lead them into a better future."

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who has emerged as the front-runner for the leadership on the modernising wing of the party, said: "My own personal view is that we need to ensure that the leader of the party is acceptable to the majority of members of Parliament."

His comment will be interpreted around Westminster as a thinly veiled attack on David Davis, who is unpopular with many MPs and viewed by some as calculating, conspiratorial and disloyal.

The modernisers - including supporters of Mr Duncan, Damian Green, Tim Yeo and Andrew Lansley - began private talks at the weekend to try to agree on a single candidate to oppose David Davis.

Allies of Mr Davis said they suspected the rule change announced by Mr Howard could be devised to keep him out of office.

"If it is a college and the membership get a fair share of influence, that will be fine. But, if it is a vehicle to stop a certain member becoming leader, there will be a colossal row," warned one leading MP in the Davis camp.

In another apparent swipe at Mr Davis, who is not seen as a moderniser, a string of MPs broke their silence to warn that the Conservative Party must change or die.

John Bercow, a prominent moderniser and former front-bencher, said the party was in urgent need of reform. "The Conservative Party has to aspire to govern Britain as she is, not Britain as she was," he told GMTV. "I've always felt in recent years that we sound as though we are a Victor Meldrew or, at worst, even an Alf Garnett."

David Willetts, the Conservative Work and Pensions spokesman, said the party needed to get more in touch with present-day Britain, and warned that if it did not adapt, it would not win the next election.

Liam Fox, Mr Davis's main rival for the leadership from the right of the party, is due to make a keynote speech about Conservative values on Tuesday, which will be seen as an early pitch for the top job.

At the weekend, Tory officials, led by Gavin Barwell, head of the party's voluntary section and sometime aide to the former leader William Hague, was already working on changes to the leadership rules.

Mr Hague, who introduced the rules, said they now needed to be changed to "return the final vote on the leadership to the MPs".

The leadership rules currently give the final say on who should become party leader to its 300,000 members. This arrangement allowed Iain Duncan Smith to be chosen as leader.

The rules are expected to go out for consultation with MPs, and to be decided at the time of conference this autumn. The changes have to be approved by the party's National Convention, made up of constituency party chairmen.

At the weekend, the Conservative co-chairman, Lord Saatchi, said that the party needed to rediscover a clear sense of purpose.

Issues dividing the Tories

Tax

Modernisers want any tax changes to help the poor, pensioners and families with children.

But those on the right of the Conservative Party are in favour of across-the-board tax cuts, including for the highest earners.

Families

Modernisers think the party want more emphasis on policies helping families and working mothers - including single mothers - including a more well-rounded childcare policy. Those on the right favour accentuating marriage and the traditional family as the best way to bring up children. They are less in favour of framing policy to help lone parents.

Public services

Modernisers believe the National Health Service and good state schooling should be at the top of the Conservative agenda. They favour maintaining state provision, but are not adverse to using the private sector to bolster services. The right of the Tory party does not believe the NHS is sacred and favours using the market, the private sector and health insurance in the health service. They are also more supportive of help for those who send their children to private schools.

Social issues

Modernisers want the party to reach out to non-traditional Tory voters, and are comfortable with the make up of modern Britain and the inclusion of ethic minorities and gays within the party. The right is less comfortable with legislation giving rights to gays, unmarried mothers or transexuals. They would prefer to stick with the issues that appeal to the core Conservative vote such as crime, Europe and immigration.

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