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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 October, 2003, 11:25 GMT
Howard's way is to spook Blair

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Perhaps the Tory party has finally shocked itself out of its decade-long, self-imposed nightmare.

Michael Howard
Howard is heading for the leadership
The deal to hand the leadership crown - formerly known as the poison chalice - to Michael Howard suggests they have rediscovered a will to win.

After years of self destruction, the party seems to have decided the real enemy is on the government benches and they need a man who can wipe the smile off Tony Blair's face.

It is a shame for Iain Duncan Smith that they had to ditch yet another leader to do it.

But, if it turns out Tory MPs have indeed agreed to hand the job to Michael Howard on a plate, it will show a parliamentary party finally accepting it has to unite or die - to quote its ousted leader.

It also suggests that the rival factions seem to have learned the lesson Labour painfully during two decades or so out of office - political purity must come second to winning.

Old Tory

The last thing they wanted was a three month leadership election campaign which would have deflected attention away from the government when it is beset with difficulties.

And they know that, of all the possible candidates to replace ousted Iain Duncan Smith, Mr Howard is the one most suited to scoring points against Tony Blair.

He did it years ago, after all, when he was Home Secretary and Mr Blair was his youthful opposite number.

Both will remember those days well. Mr Howard more gleefully than the prime minister.

Iain Duncan Smith
Mr Duncan Smith couldn't stop plots
He may be from the "old" Tory party - the one Theresa May warned had been viewed by the public as the "nasty party".

But he has huge experience, is a formidable performer and operator and has proved his worth in the "new" Tory shadow cabinet.

Their turn

His party rivals who have stepped aside are also probably calculating that, at 62, he is not going to be a long term leader.

He will see them through the next election - and at a stretch the one after that - before allowing a new generation their turn.

It is now apparent that there was far more manoeuvring going on behind the scenes during this crisis than anyone had imagined.

Both the modernisers and the traditionalists have, it seems, been discussing how best to end their differences and get on with the job of giving Labour a real fight at the next general election.

And, in some ways more significantly, they managed to keep it to themselves.

Right up until the moment of the announcements backing Mr Howard from David Davis, Liam Fox, Stephen Dorrell and Oliver Letwin, no one knew for sure what their intentions were.

Those intentions are now clear. They believe all the factions inside the party can unite behind the experienced, highly-intelligent and effective former home secretary.

Policy agenda

And they lost no time revealing their intentions, suggesting they want the shortest time possible between leaders.

Even Ann Widdecombe, who famously fell out with him and claimed he had "something of the night" about him, seemed ready to accept Mr Howard as her leader.

And, while there is still plenty of room for the best laid plans to go awry, it is now all but certain he will stand and, his supporters hope, be unchallenged.

He will then swiftly pick up Mr Duncan Smith's radical new policy agenda, carve out a new shadow cabinet - with jobs for those who stood aside for him - and turn outwards to face the government benches.

Of course, there is still the possibility that ambition or vanity will get the better of someone and they will throw their hat into the ring.

Most of the expected candidates have now ruled themselves out but there are others who may believe a newer face is required.

That would blow apart this otherwise well-oiled campaign and could pitch the party into just that election campaign amongst grassroots members they are desperate to avoid.

And the decision to return to a version of the old "magic circle" method of selecting a leader, rather than asking the membership, will not go down well with some grassroots Tories.

There are already demands for the party board to insist that the membership is given a vote to ratify Mr Howard's leadership.

Most members will probably accept Mr Howard is their best bet and rally behind him.

In any case, for now at least, it looks like the Tories have finally found a new purpose.

The BBC's Laura Trevelyan
"Brainy, tough and battle-hardened"

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