Tory kingmakers get ready for the mother of all leadership battles

With no obvious successor to Iain Duncan Smith, power resides with those behind the scenes
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Indy Politics

It is a sign of the dire state of the Conservative Party that it is not even as good at disloyalty as it used to be.

All Conservative leaders, in fact all party leaders, have had their big-name rivals causing them grief, operating either on the inside or the outside. William Hague had Michael Portillo in his Shadow Cabinet and Ken Clarke out of it. John Major had Mr Portillo, again, and John Redwood; Margaret Thatcher had Sir Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine; Ted Heath had Margaret Thatcher and Enoch Powell, and so on back into history.

But poor Iain Duncan Smith is apparently fated to go down to ignominious defeat without even facing a decent-sized enemy. When The Times suggested that Mr Clarke might be preparing a leadership bid, he was seen punching the newspaper and declaiming that Mr Duncan Smith's troubles were nothing to do with him.

Mr Portillo, the arch-plotter, has also kept well out of it. Mr Duncan Smith's predecessor, William Hague, and his probable successor, Michael Howard, have been scrupulously loyal. John Major's intervention yesterday is not something Mr Duncan Smith could complain about. As two loyal shadow ministers complained in a letter to yesterday's Daily Telegraph, he is being brought down by people who "hide in the shadows and have no alternative leader".

But just as the plotters have no big-name leader, those who want everything to settle down so that the party stops tearing itself apart are also feeling the lack of big beasts. One MP was privately lamenting that there is no one left like Willie Whitelaw, Margaret Thatcher's deputy in the 1980s, whose seniority and political background on the Tory left gave him the authority to impose discipline and self-restraint on the party.

This absence of big beasts will be felt again if Iain Duncan Smith is ousted in the coming week. Many MPs and activists are appalled by the prospect of a leadership election, which could absorb the party's energies for weeks. The way to avoid this would be for a Whitelaw figure to step in and broker a deal under which all but one of the potential candidates stand aside, and Mr Duncan Smith's successor is installed by acclamation.

Some MPs are saying that a deal is possible, but no one thinks it is likely, because there is no one of sufficient stature to act as honest broker, and because there is too much distrust between the potential contenders.

Mr Clarke is the Tory most non-Tories think would make the best leader, and there is no real doubt that he would accept the job if it was offered to him by acclamation. However, his enthusiasm for Europe and his opposition to the Iraq war make him unacceptable to too many Tories.

Michael Howard has emerged as Mr Duncan Smith's most probable successor, not least because of the care he has taken to avoid any semblance of disloyalty during the current crisis. Those people who know him well say that he is not keen to be embroiled in a leadership election either, though he would be unlikely to refuse the leadership if it were offered on a plate.

Mr Howard might just about be acceptable to the Tory left, but he does not get on with his main rival on the right, David Davis. Mr Davis's partisans say he is the stronger performer and that Mr Howard should step aside.

Even if these two could agree, there might be others such as the shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, Tim Yeo, or the Deputy Leader, Michael Ancram, who will be tempted to have a go. But it is not just the candidates who play a role in leadership elections. They have their kingmakers, as well as their kings.

Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, is expected to be the most influential non-candidate this time round. His high intelligence and pleasing manner have established him as the thinking person's Thatcherite, though it has been said that he could not be prime minister because he is the sort who might absent-mindedly plonk his briefcase on the nuclear button. But Mr Letwin's support would be a huge boost for any candidate.

A less obvious kingmaker is the former education secretary Gillian Shephard, one of the few former Cabinet ministers still active in the party. Although she is not seen much around the Commons, Mrs Shephard's job as the party's deputy chairman and "school matron" to the hundreds of Conservative parliamentary candidates gives her considerable clout with the party outside Westminster, where the leader is ultimately chosen.

Another potential kingmaker is the chief whip, David Maclean. Despite the loud protestations of loyalty to Mr Duncan Smith from his office last week, opponents and supporters suspect that David Maclean is preparing the way for Michael Howard to take over. Mr Maclean was Mr Howard's campaign manager in the 1997 leadership election. Before that, he was a minister at the Home Office for four years, when Mr Howard was Home Secretary, and he enjoyed working with him so much that he turned down an offer of a job in Cabinet.

But the voice which the Tory faithful will most want to hear is the one that was heard, briefly but decisively, in each of the past three leadership contests. In 1990, at a crucial moment in the contest, Margaret Thatcher held a dinner for her most trusted friends, and told them that John Major should be her successor. Word leaked out, and Major won.

In 1997, she made a much publicised intervention to endorse William Hague. In 2001, Mr Portillo's camp claimed to have the lady's support. Her bruising denial was taken as an implied endorsement of Iain Duncan Smith.

But Baroness Thatcher was 78 this month, and those who saw her at Denis Thatcher's funeral did not think they were looking at someone who would be intervening in politics again. If the Tory rank and file are asked to come to a decision without any guidance from the old baroness, they really will have lost their leader at last.