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Monday, 7 October, 2002, 08:21 GMT 09:21 UK
Sights set on survival

Politics at the top is a kind of time machine, accelerating life's strains and choices - look at how many years Tony Blair has aged in the last five (Answer: a lot more than five).

Now Iain Duncan Smith is feeling the pressure, and how.


There are enough wolves, hyenas, prairie dogs and buzzards circling to populate a Disney blockbuster

The Conservatives' Bournemouth conference could hardly have had worse omens.

Unhelpful polls; some muttering behind Tory hands about how "IDS isn't up to it"; open criticism and revolt in pro-Conservative newspapers, attacks on the leader's performance by such respected former ministers as Malcolm Rifkind and Kenneth Clarke; and Labour's generally successful conference at Blackpool.

Scrutiny

Last year, the new Tory leader had the backdrop of 11 September.


The party is torn between the so-called Mods and Rockers

As a staunchly pro-American politician with a military background and continuing interest in security issues, he performed perfectly well.

But it was hardly a typical party conference.

This time round, he will be under constant scrutiny, as will his team.

Journalists are fond of describing the next speech by almost anyone in politics as the most important of his, or her, career.

For once, with Mr Duncan Smith, it could just be true. There are enough wolves, hyenas, prairie dogs and buzzards circling to populate a Disney blockbuster.

Everyone accepts he has courage and decency.

'Urban-friendly'

But he has not yet proved a good public speaker and a recent speech at a Tory fundraising dinner in London was severely criticised by some guests.


He is going to have give a heck of a speech to emerge well from the week ahead

The main issue has been his alleged failure to ask enough tough questions of Tony Blair over his support for the US campaign against Saddam Hussein.

More substantially, the party is torn between the so-called Mods and Rockers - the modernisers who want a more liberal, urban-friendly kind of party and the traditionalists who warn against being sucked into a bog of Blairite banalities.

The divisions are vaguer than they seem and the whole issue is clouded by personality feuds, but it is a real debate which has not yet been properly resolved by Mr Duncan Smith.

He sided with the modernisers, depressing former supporters like Lord Tebbit, particularly when he brutally removed David Davis as party chairman; yet in recent months he has disappointed modernisers too and has lost two key members of his private staff.

Loathing

In this context, a hugely successful conference would be one which left everyone in the party and outside it clear where Mr Duncan Smith really intended the Tories to go, on social policy and on welfare; which developed a line of serious criticism of Mr Blair's foreign policy; and which stifled the growing murmur about a leadership challenge.

That is asking a lot, perhaps too much.

The leader's critics will not let up until after the local government elections next year, and perhaps not then.

He is going to have give a heck of a speech to emerge well from the week ahead.

Still, he has some advantages. The Tory family truly loathes Mr Blair and feels strongly that he has failed and failed again on the key domestic issues.

Cynicism

There are worrying economic signs ahead; and with taxes up the shadow chancellor should enjoy his speech - as, after the warnings about a radical shift in the criminal justice system, will the Shadow Home Secretary, Oliver Letwin.


The Tory leader has the advantages of low expectation and high hype

Polls have shown voters' rising cynicism about New Labour, and a closing of the gap during the late summer.

Above all, though, the Tory leader has the advantages of low expectation and high hype.

Political observers have been predicting a week of poisonous mayhem, in which Mr Duncan Smith's position is further weakened.

Even now, it may be that the party has enough sense of self-preservation to rob the hacks of that pleasure.

This time, getting through in good order would be enough.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Jonathan Beale reports from Bournemouth
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06 Oct 02 | Politics
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