Tory leader put under pressure on three fronts

Michael Howard was given an ultimatum about his leadership last night and warned that "the muttering will become louder and louder" unless he delivers an impressive performance at this year's party conference.

Michael Howard was given an ultimatum about his leadership last night and warned that "the muttering will become louder and louder" unless he delivers an impressive performance at this year's party conference.

John Strafford, chairman of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy, said Mr Howard would "face big trouble" if he failed to win over party activists in Bournemouth in October, and could even face a formal leadership challenge.

Aides of Mr Howard have been trying to dampen speculation about his leadership and to deflect criticism that he has surrounded himself with a coterie of metropolitan advisers. Central Office sources dismissed claims that the Chief Whip, David Maclean, had drawn up a list of parliamentary "bed blockers" who should move aside to make way for young blood in the Tory ranks.

The claims sparked a row over Mr Howard's inner circle of advisers, after they were dubbed the "Notting Hill set" by Derek Conway, the former whip named as one of the MPs under fire. Mr Conway said yesterday: "The lesson for them is to be much more careful about gossip and the closer they are to the leader the less they must gossip."

Mr Strafford said grassroots activists were "muttering" behind the scenes and beginning to wonder if there really was "something of the night" about the Conservative leader - a reference to Ann Widdecombe's damning put-down while Mr Howard was Home Secretary. "If he has a bad conference I can see moves happening pretty quickly," he said.

Mr Strafford said activists had begun discussing the leadership after the poor results in the European elections. They were also disappointed by Mr Howard's failure to land a killer blow on Tony Blair over Iraq in the House of Commons. "Michael Howard made a clever lawyer's point which upset both pro- and anti-war people," he said. "Once the mutters start, people start thinking maybe there is 'something of the night' about him."

Senior aides made it clear they would not bow to pressure to tack to the right. An aide to Mr Howard said: "This is the opening overture in the silly season. Like all overtures it will be over fairly quickly. We get blown by the weather but we do not change course. We are not going to change strategy."

The UK Independence Party meanwhile threatened to stand against any Tory MP who did not sign a declaration saying they wanted to withdraw from the European Union. The Euroceptic party said it was planning to campaign against Mr Howard in his constituency in Folkestone and Hythe, where he is under pressure from the Liberal Democrats. They also plan to target Oliver Letwin, the shadow Chancellor, in West Dorset. A UKIP spokesman said there were more than 300 party members in Folkestone. "They are itching to get Michael Howard. It will certainly be an interesting campaign there," he said

But Eurosceptic Tories rallied to Mr Howard's defence. Julian Brazier, an anti-EU front-bench Tory MP, was dismissive about UKIP's attempt to knock the Tories off course: "The policy we have on Europe is renegotiation. It is a much tougher policy than we have had before," he said.

"I am a Eurosceptic but I won't be signing it. We don't have a record of giving in to threats in this party."

THE 'NOTTING HILL SET'

Rachel Whetstone

Michael Howard's chief of staff. Former adviser to Mr Howard at the Home Office. Said to have been furious at being cast as one of the Notting Hill elite. Aged 36.

David Cameron

37-year-old MP for Witney. Former adviser to Norman Lamont and Michael Howard. Director of policy co-ordination at Central Office and tipped as a future Conservative leader.

George Bridges

Former political secretary to John Major. Now head of campaigning at the Conservative Research and Development Department, the party's policy wing.

THE 'BED BLOCKERS'

Sir Patrick Cormack

Tory grandee and strong supporter of the war in Iraq, who irritated Michael Howard by intervening in his speech during debate on the Butler report.

Tony Baldry

MP for Banbury and chairman of the Commons International Development Committee, who also intervened on Mr Howard during the Butler debate.

Derek Conway

MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup. Coined the phrase "Notting Hill set" after being named as a "bed-blocking" MP in The Daily Telegraph. Played key role in the downfall of Iain Duncan Smith.

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