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Last Updated: Monday, 27 October, 2003, 14:12 GMT
Tory leader gauges MPs' views
Iain Duncan Smith
MPs may be calling time for Mr Duncan Smith
Iain Duncan Smith is seeing Conservative MPs in groups of eight to 10 to gauge their support as speculation continues to mount over his leadership.

The meetings come after one of Mr Duncan Smith's key allies, shadow defence secretary Bernard Jenkin, said the next few days would decide his future as leader.

For a confidence vote to be called, 25 MPs have to write to Sir Michael Spicer, chairman of the 1922 Committee, which is made up of all Tory backbenchers.

Former government whip Derek Conway has become the first MP to publicly declare he has written a letter formally requesting a confidence vote.

Former frontbencher Crispin Blunt - who called for a leadership contest in May - has also confirmed he has now made a written request to Sir Michael.

Contest rules

A party spokesman said Monday's meetings would see Mr Duncan Smith tell MPs that a leadership contest would wreck Tory election prospects, and also warn that Labour might even call a snap election.

But he would also be asking the MPs what they thought and listening to their views, said the spokesman.

If there are enough letters to force a vote, Mr Duncan Smith will have 24 hours to decide whether he wants to resign or fight on.

If there have been a succession of crunch weeks for Iain Duncan Smith the current one seems likely to be the crunchiest
BBC's Nick Assinder

If a vote of Tory MPs was held and the Tory leader stood and won a simple majority, he could not face a further challenge for another year.

But if he loses, he must resign immediately and can not take part in the ensuing leadership battle.

When Mr Duncan Smith was elected two years ago fewer than one in three Tory MPs backed him.

He won after ordinary party members voted for him in a run-off with former chancellor Ken Clarke.

'Malcontents'

But, as the speculation continued, Mr Jenkin told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that if the 25 letters did not appear soon, Mr Duncan Smith would have a fresh mandate to lead the Tories into the next election.

"If it does not arise within the next few days then that is a decision taken by the parliamentary party to back Iain Duncan Smith," he said.

Derek Conway says enough is enough
But he cast doubt on Mr Duncan Smith's suggestion that he would not stand aside if a confidence vote was called.

"What colleagues have got to understand is that he is absolutely determined to go through with his obligation, his duty to the party and the country, unless they put their names in and start a process to remove him.

"Then I think the situation will change."

Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin said a confidence vote was very far from inevitable.

"I suspect, in fact, this whole thing may go away over the course of the next week," he told BBC News 24.

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Mr Conway told Today: "There was a remarkable atmosphere in Westminster last week where people really felt enough was enough."

Up to three quarters of MPs had now concluded that Mr Duncan Smith was "not up to the job", added Mr Conway.

Former Tory frontbencher John Greenway has urged Mr Duncan Smith to initiate a confidence vote himself and stressed "if the crunch came", he would also have to write to Sir Michael Spicer.

'Bullying'

On Sunday, Mr Duncan Smith was defiant on BBC One's Breakfast With Frost.

"I say to those who hide in the shadows and whose voices are heard out of bitterness and personal ambition - they should go gracefully," he said.

Mr Duncan Smith said he had earned the right to lead his party when he won the votes of grassroots Tories.

We have just come to a judgement that Iain Duncan Smith's time is up
Derek Conway
Tory MP

"This party is in the process of being frightened and bullied by a small number of people whose personal ambition and whose personal anger and bitterness is... trying to push the party to the edge of a divisive leadership process which would rip them apart," he added.

A survey carried out for BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend found significant support for Mr Duncan Smith's leadership among constituency association chairmen.

Out of responses from 126 chairmen, 87 said they did not want a confidence vote in the Tory leader, 62 thought changing the leader would make the party's electoral prospects worse and 99 said they had a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in Mr Duncan Smith.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Laura Trevelyan
"Derek Conway's letter is the political equivalent of a dagger"



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