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Last Updated: Saturday, 4 October, 2003, 01:49 GMT 02:49 UK
Tories put their leader to the test
John Andrew
by John Andrew
BBC political correspondent

Ian Duncan Smith MP
The Conservative leader has to prove he can deliver results

Ian Duncan Smith's performance is going to be crucial at this conference.

There are serious doubts about how effective he is as leader.

And there are Tories who will tell you, publicly and privately, that they don't think they can win an election with him as leader.

So he's really got to prove his mettle. Last year he asked the public not to underestimate the determination of "a quiet man".

Well there's got to be proof that this determination is delivering concrete results, in terms of well thought-out policies and electoral success.

Everybody knows that the Tories did badly in the Brent East by-election, being pushed into a poor third place.

Arguing that it wasn't their natural territory was not completely true as they have run the council there several times.

On the other hand the Conservatives are now the main party in local government.

They've got more councils and councillors than any other party.

Yet IDS has had a stormy year.

There was concern over the way he handled the issue of gay adoption when he enforced a three line whip for Tories to vote against it.

Many MPs disobeyed him, and IDS accused them of undermining the leadership. That left a bad odour in the party.

Nasty Party?

Then there was the resignation of the chief executive Barry Legg, who had only been appointed by Duncan Smith a few months before.

Many saw that as an example of the Tory leader's bad judgement.

And on local election night we had the famous resignation by the front bench spokesman Crispin Blunt, attempting to force a leadership vote.

Duncan Smith came through that unscathed, but now he has to prove he can increase the party's support.

Despite this, I'd be surprised if he gets an openly hostile reception at the conference.

Instead, there may well be an attempt to rally round him, especially as he's bound to mention the successful local election results as proof he can deliver electoral success.

The repercussions of the Iraq war might resurface in Blackpool.

The Conservatives were behind the government's decision, and right now, they're still saying it was right to go to war.

But they are questioning the government's evidence. They want to know why is it that the prime minister is so confident that weapons of mass destruction will be found.

The irony is that perhaps the one thing that has leached support for the government is Iraq, and yet the Tories are unable to take advantage of it in the same way as the Liberal Democrats because of their initial support for the war.

Tax cuts

Theresa May made a famous speech last year where she said that many people thought the Tories were the nasty party - that upset a lot of members, who want to avoid a replay of that tension this year.

The theme of caring conservatism may make reappearance on the platform this week, but many people find it hard to accept.

Duncan Smith might convince his own members that he's building a compassionate party, but convincing the electorate may be more difficult.

Michael Howard MP
Michael Howard may face pressure for tax cuts

The other flashpoint to watch is the desire by the Thatcherite side of the party for a definite commitment to cut tax.

Yet the shadow chancellor, Michael Howard, has already said that he may not be able to afford to cut taxes in his first Budget.

There'll be few if any surprises on the policy front.

What we will see is an attempt to put flesh on the bones of existing policies, such as the 'Patients Passport', a plan to allow NHS patients to buy private healthcare using state funds.

And of course they'll be attacking Labour by saying that their taxing, spending and failing.

Expect to see a revival of that old slogan "Labour isn't working" but this time with the added word "again".

One thing the conference will be expecting is a different image.

We know that Duncan Smith has had a makeover, receiving guidance on how to look and sound, rather like another famous Tory who changed her image.

But it is noticeable that when he raises his voice it becomes croaky.

So he might be remaining the "quiet man", whether he likes it or not.

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