IDS resists battle to oust him


Iain Duncan Smith threw down the gauntlet to Tory plotters last night.

He hit back after the party's biggest donor, betting magnate Stuart Wheeler, declared the case for ditching him was "absolutely overwhelming".

The attack from the man who gave the party £5 million before the last election started a day of feverish rumours and signs that rebels were stepping up their efforts. But Mr Duncan Smith warned his Shadow Cabinet that anyone trying to oust him would face a bloody battle.

In what was effectively an ultimatum, he insisted: "I have earned the right to lead this party and I am sticking to that."

Mr Duncan Smith does not believe the plotters have enough support to trigger a leadership contest. So he is daring them to try.

Reports of new pressure on the leader had been racing through Tory ranks. Five former Ministers were said to be about to demand that he go and the 25 MPs needed to call a leadership election were reported to have been assembled.

Lost confidence

A TV report even said that ultra-loyal Chief Whip David Maclean had told Mr Duncan Smith he had lost the confidence of his MPs and should step down. Mr Maclean immediately issued a statement dismissing the idea as "fantasy".

But reports persisted that he had told Mr Duncan Smith support was ebbing away. The meeting was said to have prompted the leader's tough line with his Shadow Cabinet.

A senior leadership source fiercely denied that Mr Maclean warned Mr Duncan Smith it was his last chance to "go gracefully".

He said the chief whip knew Mr Duncan Smith would regard it as "cowardice" to resign when the 25 names had not been produced.

Asked what he would do if the names did emerge the source conceded: "That is a different matter."

It all added to a powerful sense at Westminster of momentum building behind moves to ditch the leader. Many Tories believe he will be gone by Christmas and bookmakers William Hill stopped taking bets on his survival.

Loyal MPs believe the rebels are stepping up their efforts because they believe Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Sir Philip Mawer is likely to clear Mr Duncan Smith of any impropriety over payments to his wife Betsy for secretarial work. That would make it harder to unseat him.

The seriousness of the crisis was underlined when party chiefs sent Shadow Chancellor Michael Howard onto live television to reject the rumours as "absolute fantasy" and urge Tory MPs to get behind Mr Duncan Smith.


The day of rumour and conspiracy had begun with the onslaught from Mr Wheeler.

He said of Mr Duncan Smith: "He doesn't come over at all as a potential prime minister. He comes over as weak. He won't capture any significant number of Labour or Liberal Democrat votes, I think.

"That is a catastrophe, really, when Labour is so weak."

Mr Wheeler said Mr Duncan Smith deserved praise for ending the party's civil war over Europe and unveiling new policies. But he went on: "In spite of that, I'm afraid, he should go because he is terribly bad at communicating."

He said Tory MPs had a "duty" to amass the 25 names needed to force a confidence vote.

Mr Wheeler insisted he did not belong to any Tory faction, saying there were potential new leaders on both the Left and the Right.

The suggestion that IDS is costing the Tories money is especially important as recent declarations to the Electoral Commission showed a sharp decline in donations.

Leadership sources hit back by insisting Mr Wheeler had not been a significant donor for years and was unlikely to give much more. One senior official said: "Donors do not run the party. They do not decide policy and they do not pick the leader."

Former Tory treasurer Lord Ashcroft also tried to dispel the suggestion that donors were deserting. The peer, who has given the party at least £1 million and loaned £2 million more, insisted he would dig deep again at election time. But he conceded that the party currently looked like "a gaggle of squabbling losers".

Tough line

With pressure mounting, Mr Duncan Smith took a tough line at a tense 45-minute meeting with his front bench team. He told them: "I am aware that there are rumours and speculation about my leadership".

But he made it clear that any attempt to oust him would cause the party major damage. Shadow Cabinet members, many of whom are actively conspiring against him, banged the table in an apparent show of support.

The spectacle of a Tory leader being reduced to threatening his supposed closest colleagues was almost unprecedented. Even John Major only accused a few of his line-up of being "bastards", and even then he did not realise he was being recorded.

There was more tension at the weekly gathering of the backbench 1922 Committee where it was assumed the plotters would act if they had enough names. But no coup materialised at a meeting which lasted just eight minutes.

The non-event did nothing to calm speculation, however. One backbencher said: "It is clear there is a momentum building. There are furtive meetings going on."

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