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Saturday, 5 October, 2002, 12:05 GMT 13:05 UK
Not getting any easier for IDS
Conservative Party Conference 2001
Mr Duncan Smith needs to have a good week

One year on from his election as Tory leader and Iain Duncan Smith still has the worst job in British politics.

In some ways, things have actually got worse for him over the past 12 months.

The initial post-leadership election euphoria, as far as it went, has long worn off.

On the very eve of his party conference the flapping of black wings can be heard all around, so as he prepares for the Bournemouth rally, he knows he has to pull off a pretty good performance if he is to silence his critics.

First, The Spectator magazine, edited by right-wing Tory backbencher Boris Johnson, carried a front-page claiming Mr Duncan Smith's time was running out.

Loser?

Inside political editor Peter Oborne claimed there could even be a leadership challenge unless he gets his act together.

At the same time, and in the same magazine, former minister Sir Malcolm Rifkind claims Mr Duncan Smith is damaging the Tories' credibility by giving such unquestioning support to Tony Blair over Iraq.

Anybody would think the Spectator had it in for Mr Duncan Smith.

Secondly there has been an eve of conference poll suggesting Mr Duncan Smith is once again trailing behind Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy in the popularity stakes.

On the surface this may all seem deeply worrying for the Tory leader who could be forgiven for thinking nobody has a good word for him - except, perhaps, loser.

'Whinging ever since'

But, while he clearly has no reason to be complacent, he is also canny enough to see these things for what they are.

First off, The Spectator. It may well be speaking for a sizeable, and certainly vocal, group within the party.

But there is a huge element of "they would say that wouldn't they" in this affair.

They didn't want IDS in the first place. The real worry here is that they haven't stopped whinging about it ever since.

Meanwhile, David Davis' leadership ambitions appear undimmed, possibly even sharpened, by his demotion earlier this year.

Many on that wing of the party are still lobbying like fury on Mr Davis' behalf - even if without his overt encouragement.

Disloyalty

The calculation Mr Duncan Smith has to make is whether these people are a real force to be reckoned with, or simply a faction - similar to the left-wingers Mr Blair has seen off in the Labour Party.

If he considers they are a real force then he has probably already had it.

But if he decides they are the latter, as many believe, he may be well advised to tackle them head-on, warn there will be no other way than his and that disloyalty will not be tolerated.

He will have to be pretty sure of his ground and willing to follow through with some tough action if he is to adopt that course.

Blood may have to be spilled. The great fear is that it could split the party - as if it were not already terminally divided.

But if the dissenters are truly out of touch with the current party mainstream, Mr Duncan Smith may even consider he is better off without them. There are obvious parallels to be drawn with Labour in the 1980s.

Closing the gap

Second, the opinion polls. It is always the case that individual party leaders do better in the aftermath of their conferences.

Mr Duncan Smith┐s showing should pick up in the wake of his gathering this week.

The latest survey should not be a cause of excessive concern. It is the long term forecasts Mr Duncan Smith will be poring over and, if insiders are telling the truth, they paint a slightly more optimistic picture of the Tories closing the gap on Labour.

Lastly, this conference will be about more than Mr Duncan Smith's leadership.

New-look conference

What many observers and grassroots party members will be looking for from Bournemouth is a fleshing out of party policy on key issues like the health service and law and order.

Former leadership contender Kenneth Clarke has already demanded that sort of detail. They also want to know exactly what Mr Duncan Smith means when he talks about making the Tories more inclusive and less intolerant.

The new-look conference, with no shadow cabinet platform and a later start every day, will also be under the microscope.

Of course, there is the curse of the diaries - Edwina Currie, Jeffrey Archer and Alan Clark all threaten to overshadow this event.

But most important of all, the representatives - no delegates here - want to leave the conference on Thursday thinking they really can win the next election.


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05 Oct 02 | Politics
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