IDS sacked - Howard emerges as favourite

CONSERVATIVE MPs last night sacked Iain Duncan Smith as their leader – but a third leadership contest in six years is likely to be avoided as the party rallies behind Michael Howard.

By Graham Dines

CONSERVATIVE MPs last night sacked Iain Duncan Smith as their leader – but a third leadership contest in six years is likely to be avoided as the party rallies behind Michael Howard.

Mr Duncan Smith lost a vote of confidence by 90 votes to 75 following weeks of plotting and intrigue that started at the annual conference in Blackpool.

Mr Howard, the shadow chancellor whose battling performances in the Commons against Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have earned him admiration from all quarters, had already emerged as clear favourite in the event of Mr Duncan Smith being toppled.

His chances of succeeding multiplied last night when chief rival David Davis announced he was not standing.

Tim Yeo, MP for South Suffolk, who would be the standard bearer of the Tory left in any contest, said he would consult colleagues before making a decision in the next 48 hours whether to contest the vacancy.

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Mr Davis's decision not to run will be greeted with immense relief in the Tory ranks because it would have plunged the party into a bitter leadership contest.

The outcome of the leadership vote was greeted with public regret by East Anglia's MPs and anger by the activists who had elected Mr Duncan Smith leader in September 2001.

More than half the East of England's 55 MPs are Tories and although none of them would admit it publicly, a sizeable proportion must have voted to dump their leader.

Shadow trade and industry secretary Tim Yeo, seen by some commentators before Mr Davis's decision as a unity candidate, will decide before the weekend whether to stand.

He said: "I am sad Iain has gone. As a member of the shadow cabinet, I promised to vote for him and I did.

"We have a week to decide before nominations need to be put in. I am speaking to colleagues and will make an announcement before the weekend."

David Ruffley, the Bury St Edmunds MP who is a strong supporter of Mr Davis, said his decision not to stand was "grown up politics".

Mr Ruffley believed Mr Davis could have won the votes of activists nationwide, but was standing aside because he could not tolerate the "bloody conflict" of another leadership election.

Richard Spring (West Suffolk), shadow minister for Europe, paid tribute to Mr Duncan Smith's "brave and gutsy" performances this week.

Shadow defence secretary Bernard Jenkin MP for North Essex, a key lieutenant of the Tory leader, found it difficult to control his emotions once the ballot had been announced.

He has maintained it was grossly unfair to give Mr Duncan Smith only two years to establish himself in the role of redefining Conservative polices on the key social issues facing Britain.

"A leadership contest is inevitably a divisive phase for any political party, whether you are an MP or an ordinary party member in the country. We must make sure we reach a decision as soon as possible," said Mr Jenkin, who declined to name who he wanted to see emerge as leader.

Simon Burns, MP for Chelmsford West and a backer of David Davis in the previous contest, would not say who he voted for in yesterday's ballot but said he had opposed a confidence vote.

"But now we have had the vote, we must choose a new leader as soon as possible," said Mr Burns. "We can then get on with the job Conservatives up and down the country have been crying out for us to do and that is to oppose this government vigorously and effectively."

John Whittingdale (Chelmsford East and Maldon), the shadow culture secretary, voted for Mr Duncan Smith and was "deeply sorry" he had lost.

"The party owes a deep debt of gratitude for the work on policy which he initiated and brought to fruition at the party conference this year,"

He added: "The country needs a strong opposition but for the past few months the Conservative Party has been the victim of constant sniping in the shadows."

Sir Teddy Taylor, MP for Rochford and Southend East, who supported Mr Duncan Smith in the vote, said the Tory leader was "one of the straight people"' he knew in politics.

"The campaign just seems to have been a campaign to destroy Iain. I really don't know what it's all about."

Patsy Cave, who chairs Tim Yeo's South Suffolk party, regretted the manner of Mr Duncan Smith's passing.

She said: "I voted for him in 2001 and had great hopes for his leadership.

"Many of my members are very angry at what has gone on. We must now put politics at the forefront of the Tory Party's efforts and take the fight to Labour."

Neil Stock, who chairs both the Colchester and the North Essex constituency parties, said his members had resented the way MPs had taken upon themselves to change the leader.

"Now we need to sort the leadership out – in days rather than weeks. The parliamentary party should choose a leader whom we can all united behind to avoid the party being plunged into a divisive election."

Yesterday's unfolding drama at Westminster culminated in the announcement of the voting figures by Sir Michael Spicer, chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, at 7pm.

Under the leadership rules of the party, there will be a contest to find a new leader, but Mr Duncan Smith is barred from standing. He will remain as caretaker until the top two contenders are voted on by the 330,000 members of the party in an election which should be over by early December.

In a 20-minute address to the 1922 Committee at 2.30pm, Mr Duncan Smith admitted he had made mistakes – but said any new leader would have to go through the same learning curve.

He stressed a leadership election now would let the Government "off the hook"' just when it was coming under pressure from the Hutton Inquiry into the death of weapons expert David Kelly, and other areas.

Mr Duncan Smith added: "Two years ago, the voluntary party gave me a mandate to lead. Today I'm asking you to endorse that mandate."

MPs didn't and shortly after 7pm, accompanied by wife Betsy and surrounded by shadow cabinet colleagues, he gracefully conceded defeat, regretting that the party had denied him the chance of becoming the first Conservative Prime Minister of the 21st century.

MPs started voting at 3.30pm, and third to the ballot box was Suffolk Coastal's John Gummer, a major player on the left of the party and an ally of failed leadership contender Kenneth Clarke in 1997 and 2001.

Mr Gummer had rallied the 20 or so One Nation Tory group two weeks ago to back Mr Duncan Smith, an indication that those plotting to remove the leader were not Mr Clarke's supporters.

"The Conservative Party has got to re-learn the virtues of loyalty," said Mr Gummer, who served as its Chairman during part of Margaret Thatcher's premiership.

"The only good that has come out of this whole affair is that the party must surely now really understand it cannot continue with this perpetual plotting and intrigue."

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