Howard to stand down as leader

Howard: standing down as leader
Howard: standing down as leader

Michael Howard has announced that he is standing down as leader of the Conservatives in the "best interests" of the party.

Speaking in Putney this afternoon, Mr Howard revealed that he would resign as leader once a review of the rules for electing the leader of the Conservative Party had been completed.

The Conservatives suffered their third consecutive election defeat last night, albeit with an improved performance this time around - securing 197 seats so far.

Mr Howard told Conservative Party supporters that he would be 67 or 68 at the time of the next general election and as such would be "too old" to lead the party through another campaign.

"Because I can't fight the next election as leader of our party, I believe that it is better for me to stand aside sooner rather than later so that the party can choose someone who can," he said.

Explaining that he wished to avoid "the uncertainty of prolonged debate about the leadership of the party", he stated: "I want the next Conservative leader to have much more time than I had to prepare our party for government."

He added: "If we have achieved this much in 18 months, imagine what we can achieve in the next four or five years."

As for the process of electing a new leader, Mr Howard acknowledged that "there is a good deal of dissatisfaction with the existing rules for choosing the leader of the party."

"So I intend to stay as leader until the party has had the opportunity to consider whether he wishes those rules to be changed and if so how to be changed."

"When that process is complete, I shall resign as leader," he declared.

Oliver Letwin has ruled himself out of the running for the leadership, while David Davis and John Redwood refused to say whether they would be standing. Former Secretary of State for Scotland Malcolm Rifkind is thought to be an early frontrunner.

Earlier, Mr Howard said the general election result had marked "a significant step towards our recovery."

He hold onto his seat in Folkestone, with a nine per cent increase in his personal vote.

Conceding defeat at 0421 this morning he said the "time had now come for him (Mr Blair) to deliver on the things that matter to this country".

He added: "If he does in his third term then he will have my full support...But the time has now come for action and not talk from him."

And Mr Howard defended his election campaign, saying he was "proud" of having "taken a stand of the things that matter...and we will be able to form a stronger opposition."

The Conservatives have held on to most of their big guns despite the Liberal Democrat decapitation strategy.

The sole major blow was the loss of Shadow Education Secretary Tim Collins, who lost his Westmoreland seat by 267 votes.

Oliver Letwin, whose seat in Dorset was a top Lib Dem target, said that the results indicated that the people of Britain believed "the time has come for a change of direction".

Speaking in Dorset, Mr Letwin said the people wanted the "country to be governed by a government that actually delivers on the promises it makes" and he was "determined to get better value for the taxes they pay."