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banner Friday, 5 October, 2001, 20:28 GMT 21:28 UK
Tories' crisis conference
Iain Duncan Smith at Number Ten - but will he ever move in?
Nyta Mann

This weekend, Conservatives gather for their annual conference in a state of utter crisis. But no one is paying anything like the same attention they would have devoted had 11 September been like any other day.

Which is, for Iain Duncan Smith, a good thing. What otherwise would the media - increasingly the audience at which all conference goings-on are aimed, since through them the voters are reached - have mercilessly focused on?

An unbridgeable gulf over Europe, which remains despite a Eurosceptic having triumphed in the leadership contest.

Bill Cash: Euro-rebel extraordinaire under John Major, now in the shadow cabinet
A shadow cabinet that includes very few concessions to the mainstream, One Nation Tory tradition - but which does include persistent rebels who played no small part in helping to wreck John Major's government.

And a public little more likely to vote the party back into office than it was four years ago.

But now, Mr Duncan Smith's conference debut as leader gives him the benefit of a stage already set for a statesmanlike performance - very useful, considering the first challenge for any new leader is to establish their credibility as a serious figure.

Fighting for survival

So we are not going to see Mr Duncan Smith taking a lead from the early, baseball cap-wearing era of his predecessor William Hague's leadership.

But however much international events distract attention from the grave condition of the Tories, he still heads a party in an arguably worse state than when Mr Hague was in charge.

Before the June general election, which few realistic Conservatives expected to win, "Will we return to power in the foreseeable future?" was what Tory strategists were asking themselves.

By the morning after polling day that had become "Will the party survive?"

Tony Blair: Revived euro-referendum possibility
Having lost 178 seats in 1997, in 2001 the Tories made a net gain of just one. The entire Conservative parliamentary party is still, at 166 MPs, a smaller force than the "overspill" MPs who make up the government's overall parliamentary majority.

Across Britain as a whole, the Tory vote share was the second worst since 1832. And though they won a seat in Scotland, putting them back on the Celtic map after failing to win any 1997, the party's share of the total Scottish vote fell.

And though the comparison is often made with Labour's low point in the 1980s, a significant difference is that the party Tony Blair now leads had the hardy infrastructure of its affiliated trade unions to help keep it going.

Broadening the agenda

Can Mr Duncan Smith move his party away from Europe, the single issue with which he and the Tories are most closely identified and which has proved the most debilitating for what, lest we forget, is Europe's most successful election-winning machine?

He has declared his determination to do so, insisting it is no longer a divisive because his settled view was against joining the single European currency under any conditions.

Moving to a wider political agenda, including health and education - seen by the electorate as far more relevant than Europe - would be just the first step on the way to broadening the Tories' appeal.

Having things to say about these other subjects that will actually attract voters is the next step.

But whatever kind of agenda Mr Duncan Smith might decide he wants to switch to, he may find - like Tory leaders before him - there isn't much he can do about it.

Mr Blair, at his own party's conference, revived the possibility of a referendum on the euro during the new parliament.

Even if it does not happen, Labour will certainly make sure the chances of it doing so remain live enough to make the Tories fight among themselves.

The BBC's Jonathan Beale
"Security abroad security at home is the Tories slogan this year"
See also:

13 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Rebel's rise to the top
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