Tories pay £300 a head to say farewell to Michael Howard

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Indy Politics

The Conservative Party will say farewell to Michael Howard, its outgoing leader, tonight at a £300-a-head black-tie dinner at the Banqueting House in Whitehall.

In what is being seen as a leadership election hustings for the party's top brass and leading financial backers, the two candidates to succeed Mr Howard, David Cameron and David Davis, will address the dinner.

Mr Howard will make his swansong party speech as the 420 guests enjoy artichoke and fig tart, rosemary and lemon poussin and Seville orange and almond frangipane. The guests are expected to include the designer Bruce Oldfield and Eimear Montgomerie, former wife of the golfer Colin.

Most the Shadow Cabinet will attend, but they will not have to fork out the £300 as they will be invited to join the tables of Tory donors. The event is expected to raise more than £100,000 for Tory funds.

The Banqueting House is the only surviving part of Whitehall Palace, once the largest royal palace in Europe. Built in the 14th century, it was redesigned by the architect Inigo Jones in 1622 after a fire.

The venue may have been more appropriate for Mr Howard's predecessor Iain Duncan Smith, who was deposed by his own party in 2003: during another civil war, Charles I was executed outside the Banqueting House in 1649.

Mr Howard will formally hand over to his successor tomorrow week and his party is beginning to debate his legacy. Although he did not win the May election, he restored a sense of discipline and unity to a fractious party.

Some allies regret that he did not ditch some of the policies he inherited from Mr Duncan Smith. But Mr Howard judged that, with only 18 months before an expected general election, he could not risk unpicking the programme. While seen by critics as too much a figure of the past, Mr Howard hopes he will bequeath to his party a successor who is a future prime minister.

He engineered a long leadership contest in the hope that David Cameron, once his special adviser at the Home Office, would overtake the strong favourite David Davis. It seems to have worked - much to Mr Howard's own surprise. Mr Cameron, now the odds-on favourite, faced his first test on party discipline when it emerged that the novelist and former deputy chairman Jeffrey Archer had applied to rejoin the party. He was banned from membership for five years after being sentenced to four years in jail for perjury.

Lord Archer's wife, Mary, said her husband's application to join the party in Vauxhall, London, had been accepted and he was awaiting a response from the South Cambridgeshire constituency association.

But Mr Cameron said that, if he becomes party leader, he would not allow Lord Archer to take the Tory whip in the House of Lords. "I'm quite clear that he should not do that. I think that his days as a frontline politician are over," he told Sky News.

Today Mr Cameron will outline a plan for a national school-leaver programme in an attempt to ensure that a few months of voluntary or community service becomes the norm rather than the exception for young people.