Peter Oborne: Howard may pay a heavy price for his candour

Michael Howard has won his place in history as a Tory Party hero. He has done for the Tories what Neil Kinnock achieved for Labour: saved the party from obliteration. But there are many of us who hoped that Howard might have done more than turn the Conservatives into a reasonably effective party of opposition. We hoped he might have gone one step further and converted them into a party of government.

That opportunity now seems lost after Howard's very surprising decision to emulate John Major and William Hague and announce his departure the day after an election defeat. There was no need for it. Indeed, the comparative success of his election strategy had given him an authority over his party that no leader has enjoyed since the early days of Margaret Thatcher.

That is why there is such disappointment inside the Conservative Party about the Howard announcement. For his departure threatens a long period of internal acrimony that may well jeopardise Thursday's achievement. There is a powerful defence of Howard's decision, and it is this: his own candour about future plans contrasts sharply with Tony Blair's opacity.

In the months ahead, Blair's longevity as PM will become one of the pervasive themes of political debate: Howard will be able to taunt Blair by comparing Tory honesty with New Labour evasiveness.

But Howard may have to pay a heavy price for his candour. Tory activists feel a burning sense of hurt at his announcement that he wants to take away their power to choose a leader. To make matters worse, Howard, normally so competent and efficient, seems not to have prepared the way for the change in the rules.

Even more debilitating is that the Conservative Party may be plunged into a bitter leadership campaign in the early stages of the new parliament. Instead of scoring points off the Government, they will be taking chunks out of each other. The position is made worse by the fact that, unlike Labour, the party has no obvious replacement for the leader.

Kenneth Clarke possesses the stature, but is perhaps too old. Others are young enough, but lack the stature. The most impressive is the almost wholly untested David Cameron, but making him leader before he is 40 would be a grave risk. The right must decide on a candidate, either David Davis or Liam Fox. So too must the modernising faction. Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, is a heavyweight who will play a major role in the party for the next two decades. But he is very dull.

The battle between modernisers and the right could turn out to be hugely creative, set the agenda, and put the party on course for election victory in 2009-10. Alternatively it could set the party back another five years by generating bitterness and division. There are already signs that this could happen.

Charles Moore, perhaps the nearest thing the Conservatives possess to a grandee along the lines of the late Willie Whitelaw, accuses Howard of descending into student politics by announcing a leadership election. He thinks he has engaged in a low manoeuvre - "secretive, conspiratorial, overcomplicated, probably calculated to benefit some chum or other". That chum, in the opinion of the vast majority of Conservative MPs, would be David Cameron. They think that Howard wants to change the leadership rules to improve Cameron's chances of getting elected. The theory goes as follows: Cameron's principal rival, David Davis, is popular in the party in the country but distrusted in the party at Westminster. The way to stop Davis is to confine the electorate to MPs.

It is impossible to say whether there is any truth at all in this theory, but it is widely current, and capable of doing great damage. Howard has a position of great authority in his party this weekend. The way to maintain it, as he prepares to bow out prematurely from the Tory leadership, is to maintain an Olympian hauteur.