Cowardly dithering replaced by the Tory survival instinct

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The Independent Online

No one at No 10 will ever admit it, but shortly after 2pm, when it was first learnt that Sir Michael Spicer finally had his 25 names, the best guess is that a barely perceptible shadow passed briefly across Downing Street.

Perhaps there was no real frisson of fear at this early stage; the Tory party still has a capacity to make a mess of ousting Iain Duncan Smith, as it has made a mess of so much else in the past decade. But suddenly it seemed just possible that the Government was no longer going to be blessed with a uniquely and fatally weakened official Opposition.

After all the cowardly dithering, the Conservative Party has at last begun to rediscover its most powerful and once legendary instinct: survival. Assuming that Mr Duncan Smith is no longer leader after 7pm tonight, Michael Howard becomes the favourite to win the MPs' ballot; he is a tough, grown-up politician who has been up against Tony Blair in two big cabinet portfolios before. If he becomes leader he cannot fail, whether on television or at the Commons despatch box, to give the Prime Minister a better run for his money than he has been getting for the last two years. Mr Howard is not, as one of his supporters last night said dismissively not only of Mr Duncan Smith but of some of the lesser names touted to replace him, a "learner driver".

There are, however, plenty of caveats. Even allowing for the near-universal assumption among MPs that Mr Duncan Smith will not survive this afternoon's hastily scheduled confidence vote, nothing that follows can be predicted with certainty.

Strenuous efforts were under way to stop the former Foreign Office minister and whip David Davis, seen as the most formidable obstacle to a shoo-in for Mr Howard in the party at large, to persuade him to sacrifice his ambition to the prospect of a Howard leadership by acclaim - perhaps even without a contest at all. Mr Davis will now have little time to decide whether to run in his own right or on a joint ticket with the shadow Chancellor.

Secondly, the history of the Tory party is littered with the failures of favourites to win the ultimate prize. Rab Butler in 1956 and 1963, Reginald Maudling in 1964 Willie Whitelaw in 1975, even Michael Heseltine in 1990, are among those who looked like the best placed to succeed and didn't. William Hague didn't start as favourite in 1997 and Mr Duncan Smith was far from a certainty in 2001. And the Byzantine rule book (which was brought in to shore up Mr Hague's leadership but now looks to be extinguishing Mr Duncan Smith's, dividing as it does the decision between MPs and the party) makes the outcome of a contest even more unpredictable than it used to be.

Thirdly, the plans of one of the biggest figures in the party, away from Westminster yesterday but confidently expected to return today, remain uncertain. The closest political friends of Ken Clarke were notably reluctant to rule out last night the prospect that he would run against his Cambridge contemporary, a man with whom he disagrees on some of the fundamental issues in British politics. His supporters know that Mr Clarke, who has even greater experience than Mr Howard and came top in the MPs' poll in 2001, could yet again fail to persuade the party rank and file to back him. But they also believe that Mr Howard, for all his political skills, is not the man to revive the party's appeal to the middle ground in the way that their own champion is.

So anything is possible, including an eventual leadership victory by one of the "learner drivers" who Mr Blair would certainly feel would allow him to sleep soundly once more. And if not, it will be bravely asserted in New Labour - not without justification - that a somewhat more potent Tory party might help to bring Labour dissidents into line. But that consolation should not be exaggerated, for there isn't much doubt that Mr Blair was more than content with Mr Duncan Smith in the very job he now looks so likely to vacate today.