Tory MPs circle as leader's fightback fails

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A defiant Iain Duncan Smith vowed that he would lead the Tories to victory at the next general election yesterday despite continuing speculation that he would be deposed before Christmas.

Aided by a desperate fightback operation from allies in the Shadow Cabinet, Mr Duncan Smith tried to promote his party's policies but was drowned out by a barrage of questions over backbench threats to his leadership.

Rebels at Westminster insisted that there was a "drip-drip" effect of more MPs writing to call for a vote of no confidence and some expressed hope that the 25 names necessary would be achieved by next week.

Critics will be bolstered by the fact that even normally loyal MPs now think a contest is inevitable, as well as a raft of party chairmen backing the idea of a "clear the air" vote.

But on a visit to Loughborough, Mr Duncan Smith made clear that he had no intention of quitting without a fight and claimed he would be Prime Minister after the next election.

"This party will win the next election under my leadership. There is no question about my leadership. The question is, 'who is going to lead the country after the next election?' And I can tell you now it is going to be me," he told a press conference.

Calls for Mr Duncan Smith to call a John Major-style "back me or sack me" vote among MPs intensified as two backbench MPs said it was time to put the leadership issue to rest once and for all.

Derek Conway, Tory MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup and a former whip, argued that Mr Duncan Smith should, for his own sake, test the support he commands within the Parliamentary party.

Mr Conway told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "The only way to get closure on this is for the parliamentary party to express a view. I would be very surprised if this matter is not resolved this side of Christmas.

"A lot of people are saying, as with John Major, let's put this to bed by demonstrating that you do have the support of the parliamentary party, which has never actually been shown in Iain's case because he was elected with a third of the support of the parliamentary party, and after that anybody who has any doubts or niggles would have to go away quietly."

Crispin Blunt, MP for Reigate and the man who this week called on colleagues to force a contest, agreed. "Individual members of Parliament have quietly got to come to their own conclusion and if they think this matter has got to be put to bed one way or another then they do need to ask Sir Michael Spicer to initiate the vote of confidence," he said.

However, Michael Ancram, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, said the party out in the country supported Mr Duncan Smith.

"They can't understand the arguments going on in Westminster," he told Sky News. "They elected Iain Duncan Smith to lead us into the next election. They resent very much that there are people trying to undermine that."

Tim Collins, the Shadow Transport Secretary, said that it was time for Mr Duncan Smith's small number of critics to "shut up", while Bill Cash, the Shadow Attorney General, said the plotters had no idea about what they wanted.

Mr Cash told BBC Radio 4's PM programme: "These people have no coherent policies, no coherent philosophy, they have no coherent ideas and they don't have any alternative.

"In fact I think I am right in saying that if you put these people together in one group, they would very soon fall out amongst themselves. They would fall out like ferrets in a bag."