Knives out for IDS as civil war reignites

How the sacking of an apparatchik few people had heard of sparked yet another Conservative leadership crisis

If ever there was a time when the country needed an opposition, that time would seem to be now, with the Prime Minister prepared to embark on an unpopular war, his personal standing at almost its lowest ever, the decision on joining the euro weeks away and the Inland Revenue ready to whack the biggest tax rises for years on the public.

But the Conservative Party is far too busy to bother with all that. This week it has become so hyperventilated over the sacking of a man barely known to the public, from a job the public did not know existed, that it will probably oust its leader.

It cannot even be said that Mark MacGregor, the sacked party official, is universally loved. Those ideologically close to him, such as Michael Portillo, admired his drive and intelligence, but he was regarded with deep suspicion by others, including some who want to use his sacking to lever out the leader who sacked him.

Mr MacGregor has been on a political journey similar to Mr Portillo's, from a wild young ultra-Thatcherite in the 1980s to a "moderniser" searching for ways to make the party attractive outside the Conservatives' core constituency. He wrote the speech in which the party chairman, Theresa May, warned the Tories against being seen as the "nasty" party.

While Mr Portillo accused Iain Duncan Smith, the party leader, of wanting to be surrounded by "lesser people", others on the Tory right like the idea that a professional political adviser has been replaced as chief executive at Conservative Central Office by a self-made millionaire, Barry Legg.

There was plenty of fighting talk from the beleaguered Tory leader's bunker yesterday, most of it directed at Mr Portillo, whose one political ambition now seems to be to destroy the man who beat him in the 2001 leadership contest. While still tight-lipped on its policies and programmes to lure back British voters, Conservative Central Office seemed able to produce an endless stream of vitriol.

Allies of Mr Duncan Smith insisted that Mr Portillo, in a "dreadful miscalculation", had for the first time "laid himself open" and revealed his true agenda and ambitions.

Twisting the words of Mr Portillo's now infamous broadcast, another Duncan Smith supporter said this was "not a crisis created at the centre but a crisis born of one man's vanity".

That, however, is a minority view. Most Tory MPs will return from their week's break to an atmosphere in which despair and intrigue are mixed in equal proportions.

Leading members of the party were shocked by the behaviour of an unidentified member of Mr Duncan Smith's inner circle, who volunteered a statement to The Daily Telegraph that Theresa May was in line for the sack.

An interview given by Mr Duncan Smith on the Today programme on Thursday, when he answered questions with a strange manic laugh, has passed rapidly into political folklore.

And far from being impressed by the business experience that Mr Legg can bring to his new job as party chief executive, they see his appointment as a case of a leader under threat clinging to his "comfort blanket".

As a former MP, Mr Legg is best remembered as the organiser of John Redwood's campaign to remove John Major from Downing Street in 1995, aided by Mr Duncan Smith. Mr Legg and Mr Duncan Smith also co-wrote a pamphlet calling for the abolition of child benefit and the state pension and greater use of private health care.

One MP remarked: "Duncan Smith, Redwood and Legg are bound together by a common bond of disloyalty – so they're not the right people to ask for loyalty from us."

In the 1980s, Mr Legg was involved in the greatest local government corruption scandal of the past 30 years. He was chief whip of Tory-run Westminster council when its leader, Lady Porter, masterminded a conspiracy to gerrymander marginal wards by moving council tenants out and bringing in home-owners.

The district auditor who investigated the scandal originally ruled that Mr Legg should, like Lady Porter, face a massive personal surcharge. The decision was changed on appeal, but the district auditor did not alter his finding that Mr Legg knew that the council's housing policy had been designed to suit the Tories' electoral prospects.

One Tory official has remarked that "if you're going to appoint someone with a chequered past, you'd be better making sure he wasn't a nonentity as well".

More seriously, Mr Legg's appointment was seen as evidence that, emboldened by recent polling evidence of the Government's unpopularity, Mr Duncan Smith is reverting to the old right-wing Tory agenda of cutting taxes.

Central Office insiders predict that Mr Duncan Smith will not be thrown off his new course by "minor" personnel changes to accommodate the new team.

The leadership is thought to have been persuaded to pursue its new tack by polling conducted by Paul Bavistock, the new communications supremo, which said people didn't want the Tories to be more like New Labour, but a distinctive, strong opposition.

More significant and potentially difficult changes – namely to the less than overwhelmingly supportive shadow Cabinet – are to be put off until a reshuffle to follow May's council elections.

Until last week, it had been assumed that Mr Duncan Smith would be allowed to continue in the leadership until then, when he would pay the price if the results were bad for the Conservatives. His big test may now come sooner amid fears that Labour's difficulties will translate into a poll victory for Mr Duncan Smith that his detractors cannot afford to allow and even his supporters fear may be too little, too late.

One MP who has stayed undeviatingly loyal to Mr Duncan Smith, arguing that it would be a "catastrophe" to remove him from the leadership this side of a general election, said yesterday: "A lot of people like me will now be torn between anger at the sheer incompetence of this leadership and the self-indulgence of having a leadership election when our troops are about to go to war."

How to stage a Tory coup

Get 15 per cent of Tory MPs – 25 will do at the moment – to petition the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, now Sir Michael Spicer.

Hold a vote of no confidence. If a majority of MPs have no confidence in the leader, for now Iain Duncan Smith, then the leadership is declared vacant.

Nominate and second a new candidate who will battle against other MPs who fancy the job. Deposed leader barred from new contest.

MPs vote as many times as needed to whittle the contenders down to two.

The two names are put to a poll of every single Conservative Party member.

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