Tory dissent grows over leadership poll plans

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Michael Howard's plans to change the rules for electing the Conservative Party leader will run into a storm of protest when Tory MPs discuss them tonight.

Michael Howard's plans to change the rules for electing the Conservative Party leader will run into a storm of protest when Tory MPs discuss them tonight.

No fewer than six different options for choosing the leader will be discussed by the 1922 Committee at its weekly meeting - and there are growing fears that all of them could be voted down.

That could mean the election to decide Mr Howard's successor is fought under existing rules, giving the 300,000 members, rather than MPs, the final say. Such an outcome would boost the prospects of David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, who is believed to enjoy more support among activists than MPs.

Mr Howard's authority as Tory leader has declined since he announced his intention to stand down by Christmas on the morning after last month's general election. It could be further undermined by what is likely to be a stormy meeting tonight.

"There are almost as many proposals for electing the leader as there are Tory MPs," one senior party figure said yesterday. "It could well be that all the options are voted down, which would be a total shambles."

Such a rebuff could force Mr Howard to change his proposals to give the final say in leadership elections to Tory MPs after a preliminary ballot of party members. He needs to win the backing of his MPs to force through the reform.

The agenda for tonight's meeting, seen by The Independent, shows that the six options include giving MPs the sole right to select the leader without any consultation with party members, a move that would enrage activists.

Ann Widdecombe, the former Home Office minister, and Edward Leigh, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee in the last parliament, are proposing a "one-man, one-vote" ballot of members with the top three names going into a final ballot of MPs.

The 1922 Committee executive is proposing that the names of any candidate securing more than 10 per cent of the vote in a secret ballot of MPs be sent to activists, MEPs and peers for an informal consultation process. The result would be made known to MPs before they chose the leader. Supporters of Mr Davis insist he can win no matter which method is chosen and deny they will try to vote down all the options so that the election would take place under the existing system, by which MPs choose a shortlist of two for a final ballot of members.

Mr Howard could also face renewed demands at tonight's meeting for the election to be speeded up. Several Tory MPs fear that the party will let the Government off the hook and appear self-obsessed if its leadership "beauty contest" lasts until December.

If the contest were brought forward, Mr Davis's prospects as the early front-runner would be enhanced. A delay until December would most suit David Cameron, the 38-year-old shadow Education Secretary, who will set out his education policies in a speech tomorrow. Today Francis Maude, the Tory chairman and a leading moderniser, will urge the party to stop defining itself in relation to New Labour and dismiss calls for it to ensure "clear blue water" between the two main parties.

In a speech to the Centre for Policy Studies think-tank, Mr Maude will reject the party's populist approach at last month's election, warning that "being populist does not make you popular". He will say: "We best differentiate ourselves from New Labour by being less partisan, not more. Saying things that sound like they're being said in order to win votes is a turn-off.

"We're more likely to be heard and respected for saying things that may at first hearing be unpopular: hard, uncomfortable truths that show we care more for the truth than for our own electoral self-interest."