AXA Insurance is inviting offers on its 300,000-policy direct book, just weeks after it announced it was to let the business run down.

The insurer put the business on the market to a number of buyers, including Norwich Union, Swinton and Cox, inviting offers estimated to be between £10m and £15m.

Though negotiations are at an early stage, Norwich Union is being touted as the most likely buyer.

An industry insider said: "Norwich Union Direct is struggling to get any organic growth and would find the integration very easy."

In January AXA announced it was to cease investment in AXA Direct resulting in a loss of 220 jobs. But the company stated at the time it did not plan to pull out of the area and would continue to maintain the book and offer renewals. The AXA Direct website would remain "turned on" to new business.

At the time AXA Insurance chief executive Peter Hubbard said: "What we're actually increasingly good at is dealing with intermediaries and corporate partners. So we're going to focus our business on commercial intermediaries, commercial direct, personal intermediaries and corporate partners."

However a U-turn just two months later, coupled to the fact that many of the contact details on the invitation to bid relate to AXA's France head office, has raised a question as to who took the decision to sell and why.

The industry contact said: "The about-turn seems to smack of a two-stage thought process."

But the issue for potential buyers will be whether the book will add value to their business and fit their existing portfolio.

The industry insider said: "The issue of course with a book like this is that you are buying it dead. In three years' time under normal renewal rates you will have very little of the original portfolio left."

"It will be interesting to see who does pay top dollar to get it."

AXA declined to comment.