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Britain's Conservatives rush to crown new leader
( 2003-10-30 09:19) (Agencies)

Fresh from axing one leader, Britain's once dominant Conservative party rushed to promote another Thursday, desperate to find a heavyweight capable of challenging Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Within hours of former leader Iain Duncan Smith losing a no-confidence vote at the hands of his Conservative members of parliament, senior figures united to urge Michael Howard, the party's finance spokesman, to take the reins.

Howard's aides said he would say nothing until later on Thursday but, with many potential rivals having ruled themselves out, he appeared to have a clear run at a job once held by towering figures like Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher.

The ousted leader of Britain's opposition Conservative Party Iain Duncan Smith (C) addresses the media outside the party's headquarters in central London, Oct. 29, 2003. Duncan Smith was ousted as the party's leader after the party's 165 MPs (Members of Parliament) voted by 90 to 75 in a secret ballot to force him out.   [Reuters]
Britain's newspapers were in no doubt.

"Howard set to lead Tories," was the front page headline in the Daily Telegraph, Britain's best selling and ardently Conservative broadsheet.

"Coronation of King Howard," declared right-wing tabloid the Daily Mail, while top selling Sun branded Howard "Mister Right!" and described him as the lone Tory candidate.

Howard's supporters believe he will succeed where Duncan Smith failed -- holding Blair to account over anything from public services to the Iraq war, which most Britons opposed. Blair is Washington's closest ally over Iraq.

The 62-year-old Howard is a right-wing, euroskeptic with few soft edges who was once famously described by a fellow colleague as having "something of the night about him."

But he is also a respected political bruiser with a clinical intellect who could make life tough for Blair.

"We certainly know he can land a few blows on Tony Blair," Conservative health spokesman Liam Fox said after Wednesday's vote of confidence. "We urge him to run, we will support him."

Matthew Parris, a former Conservative MP and now a respected political commentator, described Howard as "a deeply conservative man but a politician of stature, and he's grown up and he knows the party he leads doesn't want an extremist."


"He's never going to be anything other than a bit of a hatchet man," Parris told the BBC's Newsnight program. "He's got to be surrounded by a cabinet of equals in which there are some pretty cuddly teddy bears."

Blair's public trust ratings have plunged after waging war on Iraq, but all the polls suggest he will still inflict a third successive general election defeat on his foes in 2005.

Duncan Smith had been widely regarded as one of the least impressive leaders of a right-wing party which dominated 20th century British politics but which has been floundering and riven by infighting since the heady days of Thatcher.

Within an hour of Duncan Smith appearing before the cameras to resign, the Howard caravan had gathered paced.

Right-winger David Davis, who had been expected to seek the party's top job, immediately stood aside in his favor.

"A long and protracted leadership contest would worsen the divisions and faction-fighting and make the sort of the problems we have had in the last few years even worse in the run up to the next general election," he told reporters.

Soon after, Fox, home affairs supremo Oliver Letwin and former minister Stephen Dorrell had also declared for Howard. Other senior figures said they would also not run.

Party grandees are desperate to avoid a repeat of the 2001 leadership election when most parliamentarians did not back Duncan Smith but grassroots members voted for him in a run-off.

"We can get behind Michael Howard as a unifying candidate with remarkable experience," Conservative MP Derek Conway said.

But it will only take one maverick to stand and ruin the plan for a one-man coronation.

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