Tories increase pressure on Howard to go early

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Indy Politics

Michael Howard has been warned that he could be unceremoniously sacked as Tory leader unless he abandons his plan to stay on in his post until December.

The Tory leader, who announced the morning after the election that he would stand down, is under mounting pressure to speed up his departure amid fears that his "long goodbye" will result in seven months of internal turmoil and let the Government off the hook.

Supporters of David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, believe the delay is designed to stop him becoming leader. They think Mr Howard wants to give David Cameron, the 38-year-old shadow Education Secretary, time to make a pitch for the leadership.

The Davis camp issued a veiled threat to trigger an immediate leadership election by gathering the signatures of 30 Tory MPs - 15 per cent of the parliamentary party. Derek Conway, an ally of Mr Davis, said: "I think Michael and those around him have to understand that waiting for December for this to be resolved is going to make many people very unhappy and unsettled." Asked if MPs were considering forcing an early election, he replied: "Undoubtedly there are groups of MPs about the place talking about it."

At a meeting of Tory MPs at Westminster last night, several MPs urged Mr Howard to shelve his plans to shake up the party's organisation, saying this should be done under his successor, who could then be elected more quickly.

A member of Mr Howard's shadow cabinet said: "We cannot go on like this, contemplating our own navels for seven months. It will send a terrible signal to the voters and let the Government off the hook."

Alistair Burt, until recently Mr Howard's parliamentary aide, said it was a mistake to put the organisational changes and the leadership system together as a package.

Mr Howard insisted there were strong practical reasons for sticking to his timetable, saying that a leadership election under the current rules would take 10 weeks. Once the new system is in place, an election would take only a month.

Launching the document, entitled A 21st Century Party, the Tory leader said the proposals had been drawn up by the party's board. "It was always the case that these proposals would be issued for consultation," he said. "If people come forward with different and better views, I am sure they will be considered."

Tory bosses could well be forced to make some concessions, as the proposals will require the approval of two-thirds of both Tory MPs and the 800 grassroots activists who sit on the party's national convention. A ballot will take place in September, and Mr Howard would bow out after the party's annual conference in October, with a new leader elected in December.

Party members will lose the final say on electing the party leader, which will revert to MPs. A candidate will require the support of more than 10 per cent of Tory MPs to stand. If he or she won the backing of more than half of the MPs, they would be elected automatically.

In practice, the list of candidates will be voted on by the convention and their "order of preference" published so that MPs know the views of activists. Although the MPs could still reject a candidate who was the overwhelming choice of the members' representatives, the one who topped the grassroots poll would be guaranteed a place in the final run-off among MPs.

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