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Last Updated:  Monday, 24 February, 2003, 16:17 GMT
Tory rebels branded selfish
Iain Duncan Smith
Duncan Smith turned on his critics
The Conservative chief whip has condemned "selfish and destructive" behaviour in the Tory party in the wake of Michael Portillo's scathing attack on the party leadership.

David Maclean's comments come as Tory MPs return to Westminster after a week of party infighting.

Shadow defence secretary Bernard Jenkin has accused a "few individuals" in the party of trying to "derail" Iain Duncan Smith's leadership.

The Tory leader is trying to draw a line under the spat, which escalated when former cabinet minister Mr Portillo said the party was narrowing its appeal to voters.

Mr Duncan Smith said on Monday: "I am absolutely confident I will be taking my party through to the next General Election and winning it."

Explanations needed?

Some senior Tories want Mr Duncan Smith and party chairman Theresa May to answer questions about the sacking of key officials at Conservative Central Office.

Supporters of Mr Duncan Smith say they believe the threat of a leadership challenge is now receding.

But opponents of the Tory leader could use the return to the Commons as a chance to gauge how much support there would be for a no confidence motion.
Tory MP Michael Portillo
Portillo prompted talk of a leadership tussle

Some senior members of the executive of the 1922 committee, which represents Tory backbenchers, have called for Mr Duncan Smith and Mrs May to explain what one described as "monstrous misjudgements."

Another said members of the executive were "incandescent with rage" at the leadership's "self inflicted wounds".

While Mr Maclean admitted that there was a plot to overthrow Mr Duncan Smith, he played down the prospect of him being replaced.

In an article for the Daily Telegraph newspaper, he said: "What a crazy time to raise the spectre of a leadership challenge.

"I know that over the past four months colleagues have been looking at all possible names and coming up with some fantastical scenarios.

"But I can tell them that there is no messiah waiting in the wings who will command more support than Iain."

Long game?

On Monday, former cabinet minister Lord Tebbit said nobody cared about the agenda of the party's modernisers.

"My advice is to consider who is the real enemy and get going on fighting the real enemy," said Lord Tebbit.

That call was echoed by Tory MEP Nirj Deva, who his colleagues in the European Parliament wanted MPs to focus on holding Labour to account, not fighting each other.

One Tory MP, who complained the row was self-inflicted, told BBC News Online that talk of a leadership contest before the May local elections was "barmy".

MPs did not want to upset their local party activists when their efforts would be needed for the local election campaign, he said.

But he thought there would be a leadership contest after May.

'Disquiet'

John Bercow, who quit the shadow cabinet over Tory opposition to adoptions by unmarried couples, warned of a possible leadership challenge in the near future.

"It is certainly possible. I think it could happen sooner rather than later. There is clearly grave disquiet," he told BBC One's Breakfast with Frost.

On Sunday senior Conservative figures backed Mr Duncan Smith, as he and his allies hit back at their critics.

We are united on the fundamentals, we are not making progress because we appear divided
Peter Lilley
Former Tory minister

Former prime minister John Major warned that people were losing patience with the squabbles.

And Mr Jenkin, one of the Tory leader's closest allies, said: "I do think there is a cancer in the Conservative Party, which is an inability to allow the party to be led.

It was "obscene" to talk about leadership contests when the UK might be on the brink of military action, said the shadow cabinet minister.

'Wrong target'

On Monday, former cabinet minister Peter Lilley said frustration that the party was not doing as well as it should meant the media could whip up a row.

But Mr Lilley, who backed Mr Portillo's leadership campaign, said the party was "united on the fundamentals".

The row was sparked when party chief executive Mark MacGregor was dismissed.

Mr Portillo accused Mr Duncan Smith of surrounding himself with "yes" men.





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The BBC's Laura Trevelyan
"It looks as though Iain Duncan Smith is safe until the local elections in May at least"



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