Michael Howard is kicking himself that he backed away from a big push on immigration in the final days of the election campaign—a decision which Tories believe may have cost them at least 10 extra seats in parliament.
As the Conservatives embark on a fresh round of soul searching, Mr Howard believes he could have finished off Tony Blair because a further 10 Tory MPs would have cut Labour’s majority to below 50, dealing a fatal blow to the prime minister.
Mr Howard, who focused strongly on immigration in the early part of his campaign, abandoned plans to return to the charged issue in the final days because he wanted to present an upbeat message of what he would do as prime minister.
But aides believe a harder message could have handed the Tories seats such as Crawley, which Labour retained by 37 votes and where the BNP did well. “We should have had a final go on immigration,” one Tory said.
Most Tories hailed the election result, in which they gained 33 seats, as a big step forward which will put the party in strong contention at the next election. MPs and grandees pointed out, however, that the party faces a struggle after increasing its overall share of the national vote by a mere one percentage point.
The sense of despondency is expected to be highlighted this week when at least one member of the shadow cabinet resigns. It is understood that Nicholas Soames, the shadow defence secretary, will step down because he is keen to take a prominent role on the backbench 1922 committee.
A fierce Howard loyalist, Mr Soames is expected to reject any suggestion that he has fallen out with the Tory leader, who wants to vacate the leadership by the party conference in October—and no later than Christmas. But the departure of Mr Soames, one of the most popular figures in the shadow cabinet, will add to a sense of instability in the party as the phantom leadership contest intensifies.
No candidate will put his or her head above the parapet because the party first has to decide whether to amend its leadership election rules, which currently give grassroots members the final say. But hopeful candidates will start setting out their stalls, with the first major intervention by Liam Fox, the party co-chairman, tomorrow.
In a speech to the right of centre Politeia thinktank, under the heading Let Freedom Prevail, Mr Fox will set out his vision for a low tax economy with a greater role for the private sector in public services. But he made clear yesterday that he will not be throwing his hat in the ring.
“It would be a great mistake if we started talking about personalities, rather than substance,” he said. “We need to have a good look at the pluses and minuses of what we have done and how to reach out and reconnect with a wide range of voters.”
David Davis, the shadow home secretary, who is the early frontrunner, is keeping his powder dry. But his supporters believe they have already been the victim of a dirty tricks campaign after the suggestion in some papers that Mr Davis had collected signatures of MPs to force out Mr Howard. “That is absolute rubbish,” one supporter said.
One of the most thoughtful visions came from David Willetts, the shadow work and pensions secretary, who is unlikely to stand but is keen to “fly the flag” for the modernisers.
“I think the problem is we have never had a serious analysis about what the problem is,” he said. “We have an opportunity to think clearly and rigorously about how the Conservative party tackles the problems of 21st century Britain and what it offers. We now need vision and purpose.”
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary who has returned to parliament after an eight year absence, repeatedly sidestepped questions about whether he would stand. But he made clear he still has ambitions when he confronted one of his main weaknesses—that at the age of 58 he is too old.
“I think you can give as many examples of people in their 30s or people in their 60s or even in their 70s who have been great political leaders,” he told GMTV.
One veteran held out the hope that William Hague might be tempted back, though friends said this was unlikely. Cecil Parkinson, the former Tory chairman, told BBC1’s Politics Show: “I think William Hague is outstanding . . . He is my man.”