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banner Friday, 5 October, 2001, 15:38 GMT 16:38 UK
Sheila Gunn: For better or for worse
Sheila Gunn
By Sheila Gunn

The Conservative Party meets in Blackpool for its 118th conference in a state of crisis. By Wednesday afternoon - assuming other events do not intervene - the critical turning point should have been passed.

Sheila Gunn
Sheila Gunn was political press secretary to Prime Minister John Major from 1995 to 1997
She advised him for the run-up and duration of the 1997 election campaign
She was awarded an MBE in Mr Major's resignation honours list
Having cogitated briefly on Iain Duncan Smith's speech, representatives and the media should have decided which road the party is taking.

They may conclude that it has turned right into a cul-de-sac, becoming a narrow English sect which poses absolutely no threat to Tony Blair's grip on power.

Or they could leave the Winter Gardens convinced that the party under IDS has made the first tentative steps towards winning back the trust and confidence of voters.

It is likely, of course, that the activists and media come to different conclusions.


The first test will be whether IDS & Co have the self-control not to fall into Blair's trap by being caught spluttering about Europe, either publicly or privately, with eyeballs swivelling

That is not good enough. The challenge for the new leadership is to convince a clear majority of both audiences that the party has come back from the brink. The activists must decide that the party is not only worth sticking with, but deserving of their time and money.

Most of the commentators must, at least, conclude that the most formidable party in 20th Century European politics is still relevant in the 21st Century.

Self-control required

To embark on the path of recovery requires, I believe, weaving through a range of obstacles between now and Wednesday afternoon.

Tony Blair deliberately avoided the "C" word in his conference speech, intending, no doubt, to portray the Conservative Party as not worthy of his attention. But he also laid a series of traps.

The most obvious was his "I love Europe and the euro" passage, which carried more than a whiff of Mandelson.

So, the first test will be whether IDS & co have the self-control not to fall into Blair's trap by being caught spluttering about Europe, either publicly or privately, with eyeballs swivelling.

Don't try to out-Blair Blair

The leadership may also be tempted to jeer openly at Blair's more exaggerated ambitions to solve every ill and evil in the world outside Britain.


There is a dangerous tendency in too many Conservative gatherings of late to rant against the unfairness of the outside world

This is not the time - and Blackpool is not the place - to do it. Nor should IDS try to compete for Churchillian or Gladstonian comparisons.

There is nothing invincible about Blair or his government. The time will come for different tactics. But IDS can't out-Blair Blair at this time when Britain is, as I write this, on the brink of war.

But if IDS can persuade his party and the media that he is an internationalist and outward-looking, he can confound many of his critics.

His post-September 11 reactions to date indicate that he understands this.

Start making friends

While the approach to this party conference must be different than to any other, it also presents an opportunity to start the process of making friends.


The sort of description which the leadership needs to hear at the close of conference is that it was business-like, even low key or understated - that it started a process of renewal

There is a dangerous tendency in too many Conservative gatherings of late to rant against the unfairness of the outside world. No one at Blackpool should be in any doubt of the seriousness of the party's plight.

But nor should they believe that huddling together for comfort will solve it. They need to leave the conference and, quite literally, re-sell the party to the doubters, abstainers and the disillusioned.

Hence, the sort of description which the leadership needs to hear at the close of conference is that it was business-like, even low key or understated; that it started a process of renewal.

In presenting his expose of Conservative principles, IDS needs to map out a clear path ahead which can recreate empathy with the voters, rather than play on their inner-most suspicions or fears - or worse.

If he can do this and seize an opportunity out these exceptional circumstances, the crisis could be passed and the party can start the painful process of reconnecting with the British people.

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