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Friday, 17 August, 2001, 16:03 GMT 17:03 UK
Lib Dems welcome 'wipe out' threat
Iain Duncan Smith
Mr Duncan Smith wants to 'wipe out' the Lib Dems
The Liberal Democrats have welcomed the threat of an "all-out attack" against them pledged by Conservative leadership hopeful Iain Duncan Smith.

Plans for a special anti-Lib Dem unit at Conservative Central Office were unveiled by Mr Duncan Smith as part of his policy battle with rival Ken Clarke.

The process of exposing the Liberal Democrats is simply to tell the truth about them

Iain Duncan Smith

The Lib Dems, in their first direct intervention in the Tory contest, say it shows Mr Duncan Smith recognises they are overtaking the Conservatives as Britain's second party.

Elsewhere in the leadership race, former Prime Minister John Major's office refused to comment on reports that he will hint at his preference for Mr Clarke in a magazine article next week.

Third party threat

Mr Duncan Smith, who believes his party has underestimated the third party's threat, has promised to have candidates in place to fight every Lib Dem-held seat by next year if he is elected leader.

Lib Dem chairman Mark Oaten, MP for Winchester, said the party were already the effective opposition to Labour and would welcome such early selections.

"You can put people in place, but it's the policies that count.

Mark Oaten, Lib Dem chairman
Oaten: Lib Dems unworried by Duncan Smith's threat
"If Iain Duncan Smith continues to shackle the Conservative Party to unpopular right-wing policies, he will be needing a special unit to find prospective Conservative candidates."

Mr Duncan Smith's pledge to take the Lib Dem threat more seriously comes after they managed to seize several seats at the general election specifically targeted by the Tories.

He explained his thinking during a phone-in style tele-conference with Tory councillors while campaigning in Bristol on Friday.

"I'm passionate about this. I think we have to deal with the Liberal Democrats seriously," he told one caller from Kent.

"They have successfully got away, so far, with appearing to be all things to everybody in different environments."

Charles Kennedy
Charles Kennedy scored several election hits against the Tories
A spokesman said the aim would be to launch an immediate "all-out attack", if Mr Duncan Smith wins the leadership, in "a bid to wipe out the Liberal Democrats".

The attempt to focus on policy was diverted for a time when Mr Duncan Smith was forced to distance himself from the endorsement of a right-wing Tory group.

The Conservative Monday Club, which opposes immigration and interference in UK affairs by "unelected bureaucrats in Brussels", urged its members to back him instead of the "Euro socialist" Mr Clarke.

A spokesman for the shadow defence secretary said: "Iain Duncan Smith has not called for the backing of the Monday Club, he has never been a member of the Monday Club, has never spoken for the Monday Club and has not backed the Monday Club at any time."

Major backing?

Meanwhile, the office of former prime minister John Major has declined to comment on reports he is backing Mr Clarke, who served under him as chancellor.

Mr Clarke is meeting party members at a college in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire on Friday night.

According to the Independent newspaper Mr Major has told friends he believes Mr Clarke "is clearly the best candidate".

But a spokeswoman for Mr Major said the former MP for Huntingdon was on holiday and there would be no comment on the claims.

First hustings

Mr Major will reportedly hint at his preference in a magazine article next week, when the leadership race steps up a gear.

Ballot papers go out to the 300,000 party members on Monday and the first hustings are held in London on Wednesday.

Altogether eight hustings had been scheduled for party members but one extra has been added specially for members of the youth wing Conservative Future, to be held in Manchester on 8 September.

The ballot closes just five days later with the winner due to be announced on 12 September.

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See also:

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Clarke allies rebut split claims
15 Aug 01 | UK Politics
Tories warned of 'mighty task ahead'
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Clarke: Euro poll not party political
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No euro purge says Duncan Smith
26 Jul 01 | UK Politics
Duncan Smith admits underdog status
19 Jul 01 | UK Politics
Clarke and Duncan Smith battle on
17 Jul 01 | Talking Point
Who should lead the Tories?
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02 Aug 01 | UK Politics
Candidates back Duncan Smith
15 Aug 01 | UK Politics
Tories enter contest's final stretch
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