Why battle to succeed Dave is already under way

There's no vacancy yet, but MPs want to ensure a real choice

Senior Tories are already discussing holding an "open, televised" contest for the next leader of the Conservative Party in an attempt to prevent a Gordon Brown-style coronation of George Osborne, it emerged yesterday.

The talks about an open race, which is being planned for when David Cameron steps down, rather than a plot to unseat him, have been prompted by concerns by backbenchers that the next leadership contest is already being carved up as a "narrow choice" between Mr Osborne, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson.

Despite the next Tory leadership contest being at least three years away, the race effectively began this week with key political positioning from the camps of Mr Osborne and Mr Gove.

Some Tory MPs fear that Mr Osborne, despite suffering setbacks over his Budget U-turns and the Leveson inquiry, is best placed to organise a coronation, as Mr Johnson is not even an MP and Mr Gove is deemed unlikely to win over Labour voters in any election.

In a sign of how the next contest is emerging in the forefront of MPs' minds, one senior Tory has held talks with BBC and Sky about holding a TV leadership hustings on a par with the leaders' debates of the general election campaign.

Talk about the Tory succession has escalated because the Prime Minister has been badly damaged by the Leveson inquiry, including his close friendship with Rebekah Brooks, currently awaiting criminal trial, say MPs.

An insider said: "There should be several candidates for the next contest, when that comes. We cannot have a coronation of George Osborne. We need an open, televised debate with as many candidates as possible, and to let a thousand flowers bloom."

While it is for Tory MPs, not members of the public, to decide the leader, such a debate could propel an outsider to the front of the race and persuade MPs to change their minds. Senior Tories want contenders from all wings of the party and believe the contest should include some from the 2010 intake. Names that are being suggested include Jesse Norman, Kwasi Kwarteng and Liz Truss.

Despite being outside Parliament, Mr Johnson is a possible contender if he secures a seat in a by-election after stepping down as London Mayor in 2016 and is quietly amassing support among backbenchers, including some members of the 2010 intake.

Mr Gove, meanwhile, sent a strong message to the party's traditionalist wing last week with the leak that he was planning to scrap GCSEs and bring back the O-level. While it seemed designed to unsettle Lib Dems and divide the coalition, the long-term aim was to "stake a flag in the sand" of the next leadership contest, said one supporter of the Education Secretary.

Mr Osborne is organising a rehabilitation of his own brand as a strategic mastermind and future leader, severely damaged by successive U-turns over the Budget and his association with Rupert Murdoch's inner circle.

But the Chancellor, despite a loyal band of supporters within ministerial ranks and backbenchers, faces concerted opposition within the party. One Tory minister said: "There is a danger George is spreading himself too thin. What happened with the Budget has taken the sheen off our great political strategist. But he needs to make a decision about whether he wants to be Chancellor or party chairman."

The minister, who remains a supporter of the Cameroon Tory project, also attacked the "duopoly" of Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne at the top. "When people see two rich boys at the top, it tarnishes the whole government. We're not all like that. Being seen as out of touch we can address over time. Being seen as incompetent is much more dangerous."

MPs are urging Mr Cameron to expand his inner circle, and make more use of ministers including Eric Pickles, Grant Shapps and William Hague to shake off the public perception of being a party of toffs. Mr Cameron also needs to be "more optimistic" like Ronald Reagan, rather than repeat the gloom-laden messages about economic austerity, said the minister.

Likely Candidates

George Osborne

Echoes of Gordon Brown are eerie. Having seen his charismatic pal get to No 10, he wants to get there too. Like Brown, Osborne has a Macavity-ish trait. Colleagues would rather he did his day job properly.

Boris Johnson

A rare thing in modern Tory circles: an election winner. In London the blond bombshell can reach parts of the electorate his fellow Bullingdon Club pals can't. He has an eye on succeeding Dave, and the ranks of Tory MPs warming to the idea is growing.

Michael Gove

The Education Secretary has realised winding up the Lib Dems is a fruitful way of bolstering his position. Whether buttering up journalists attacking the Leveson inquiry or appealing to the "good old days" brigade, he is a man on manoeuvres.

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