Tory focus already turns to who will be the next leader

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The mud was already flying within the Conservative Party last night as rival camps backed possible successors to Michael Howard in the event of a humiliating Tory defeat.

Mr Howard spent the last day of the campaign in a hectic round of canvassing in key Tory target seats, travelling across the country by helicopter. He returned last night to his Folkestone constituency hopeful that he would be able to prove the polls wrong by winning key marginals from Labour.

Tory campaigners said they were satisfied they had won the campaign, but senior Conservatives privately criticised Mr Howard for allowing too much focus on himself. "He is a very rigid lawyer and reminds people of the past every time he appears on the TV," said a former Tory minister. "I don't think we realised the extent to which Michael's personality and the decision to call Blair a liar produced a toxic mixture and an adverse reaction."

Tory grandees including Ken Clarke have made it clear to Mr Howard that he should stay on to oversee the likely post-mortem, and the handover to a younger leader. But the rival camps were already vying for position yesterday. A campaign to stop George Osborne or David Cameron becoming the favourites for the leadership was under way.

A senior Conservative said: "Osborne is already being called Vicky Pollard (the character from the comedy series Little Britain) for his 'yes, no, but' launch of our business manifesto. If that is the best we can do, we've had it."

Mr Cameron was also privately being rubbished by rival camps who fear that the campaign for the Tory leadership will unofficially get under way next week and Mr Osborne and Mr Cameron will prove unstoppable as the "Tony Blair and Gordon Brown" of their generation in the Tory party.

"They have both been given an unprecedented privilege of a high profile in the election campaign; they have been fed on royal jelly, and then their supporters have 'dissed' Michael by saying they were uncomfortable with the immigration strategy. It is terrible disloyalty," the source said.

Liam Fox, who has a speech booked for Politeia, the right-leaning think tank, next week, denied he was launching his leadership bid, but he is regarded as a key challenger from the right.

David Davis, who will be a favourite for the leadership if he sees off the Liberal Democrats in his Yorkshire seat, has ordered supporters to make no move over the weekend that could open him to accusations of disloyalty to Mr Howard.

There is anger at Mr Fox for suggesting that Mr Davis's position was problematic, while Theresa May, another front-bencher threatened by the Liberal Democrats, would survive.

In spite of the pressure on Mr Howard to stay for a decent period to avoid a repeat of the chaos when John Major suddenly quit the leadership, some camps are adamant that Mr Howard must go before a European referendum campaign, which could be held early next year.

Some Tory camps believe a successful "no" campaign could provide a launch pad for a new leader.