Owen Paterson
Owen Paterson was sacked from cabinet Reuters

When David Cameron surprised his party by sacking Owen Paterson as environment secretary earlier this year, he ignored the old saying about keeping your friends close but your enemies closer.

And if he had not seen the right-wing, climate-change sceptic as an enemy before then, he has been given reason to think again since he shocked and infuriated Paterson's many supporters on the backbenches with the summary dismissal. And when rebel Tories now talk about who is the senior figure most likely to wield the knife if and when the time comes to assassinate Cameron, the name Paterson is up there.

He is not the sort to make big threats or passionate leadership-style speeches but the former Northern Ireland minister knows how to offer a challenge in the most effective and apparently reasonable way.

He has made some carefully chosen interventions since returning to the backbenches and now, with the Tory Conference gripped by fear of Ukip, he has stepped into the fray, declaring Nigel Farage people need to be treated with respect.

And he issued the clearest possible message that he, like many Tory backbenchers, see Ukip as natural allies not to be dismissed as "utterly nuts" as Boris Johnson has done, for example.

"We have to be absolutely clear to those 'small c' conservatives out there, who may be sitting back at the moment, some of them might be minded to go to protest parties like Ukip," Paterson said.

UK airstrikes in Iraq against Isis
David Cameron's leadership style was criticised by Owen Paterson Reuters

"We've got to be respectful with them, and we've got to make a very clear, intelligent, case that the only national organisation that can resolve the long-term problems of the United Kingdom is the Conservative Party."

He also carefully criticised David Cameron's leadership style, saying: "If you look at the great successful Conservative leaders - Thatcher, Reagan, John Howard... We've got to offer a really robust Conservative vision of a small government delivering services better and keeping peoples' taxes down."

His views summed up the feeling of many at this conference and might even have been interpreted as his own leadership pitch, although it's more likely he is simply mapping out the agenda he wants the next leader to follow should Cameron fail in 2015.

Paterson was pitched into the spotlight during last year's floods when his climate change scepticism was held against him. Many believe he was unfairly blamed for the government's failure to invest properly in flood defences and resentment at his sacking runs deep.

Cameron may yet rue the day he allegedly casually sacked a man with quite so many friends on the Tory benches.