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Thursday, 17 January, 2002, 17:33 GMT
Tories benefit from Labour woes
Public sector workers
Tony Blair is on the rack over public services
Nick Assinder

For probably the first time since the last election, the Tories can claim to have had a pretty good week.

The opposition has twice forced reluctant ministers into appearing before the Commons to explain their policies.

Transport Secretary Stephen Byers
Byers cast doubt on the 'third way'
Leader Iain Duncan Smith, in a keynote speech, started to map out his vision for the new Tory party based on five principles of independence, freedom, choice, enterprise and security.

And he hit exactly the right issues during question time in the Commons - even though his performance was as lacklustre as ever.

But much of the newfound spark of life on the Tory backbenches probably has less to do with what the party or its leader has been up to and more to do with the current state of the Labour party.

Now that politics has started to return to normal after the fallout from the 11 September atrocity, Tony Blair has discovered serious problems on his domestic agenda.

Blair monstering

The simmering opposition from his own side over his public sector reforms, fears over the treatment of al-Qaeda prisoners in Cuba and even the thorny old issue of fox hunting have all given him a bloody time over the past week.

He looked distinctly unhappy during question time, where he faced telling attacks from his own MPs.

And later he was given what one described as a "monstering" at a meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party.

Transport secretary Stephen Byers has been on the rack on an almost daily basis over Britain's transport problems and even admitted that Mr Blair's much-loved third way was, in effect, dead in the water.

Ministers have been forced to admit privately that the government is not hugely popular with many of its own supporters and backbenchers.

As a result, the prime minister used Thursday morning's cabinet meeting as a platform to again hammer home his claim that his policies are the only ones which can deliver better public services.

He also repeated his insistence that the public were fully behind him.

Getting flaky

It all gave the impression that this was a government that, despite its huge Commons majority, was getting flaky around the edges. That has been seen by many as a direct result of a lack of any underlying, coherent ideology.

Meanwhile there are the first signs that the opposition is ready to get off its knees and start rebuilding itself.

But we have been here before - notably not long before the last election when the government was facing revolts from truckers over the price of fuel, pensioners over the 75p increase and union bosses over the public sector reforms.

The key for the opposition is to capitalise on these difficulties while still protecting its own flank.

That means avoiding the sorts of embarrassments caused by the likes of John Bercow whose comments on the party's uselessness threatened to overshadow his leader's big speech.

It is always said that it is not oppositions that win elections, but governments that lose them. The same can be said about popularity

So Mr Duncan Smith now has a clear opportunity to exploit the government's difficulties and start presenting the Tory party as a credible opposition capable of winning the next election.

He has plenty of time to turn the tide, but it is a task that his supporters believe has to start now.

See also:

17 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Tory leader outlines future vision
16 Jan 02 | UK Politics
350m transport cash unspent
17 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Concern grows over Cuba prisoners
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