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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 May, 2003, 14:36 GMT 15:36 UK
Duncan Smith sets out his vision

By Nyta Mann
BBC News Online political correspondent

Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith
Iain Duncan Smith setting out his party's new strategy

Setting out "the vision thing" is a difficult task, especially when bitter argument over which competing vision it should be have become the hallmark of the political party you lead.

Nor is it made any easier when the perception of the voting public is cluttered with past visions, each hailed as the genuine article, having been carelessly strewn about in a bid to find a unifying and electorally successful theme.

Under Iain Duncan Smith's predecessor, the Conservative Party went through a dizzying succession of strategies aimed at kick-starting the Tory recovery. None of them worked.

William Hague tried "the fresh start", "the British way", "kitchen table Conservatism", "compassionate Conservatism", "the right way", the "common sense revolution" and even "pebble-dash Conservatism", to name just a few.

Eventually he retreated to a "core vote" strategy of campaigning on traditional themes like asylum, low taxes and Europe. The sum total of Tory gains at the 2001 general election: a single seat.

Mr Duncan Smith has declined to follow Mr Hague's frenetic, ultimately fruitless example. The party's new "fair deal for everyone" strategy is one he is determined will stick and see the Tories through to the next election.

Social inclusion still on the agenda

Not that there hasn't been the odd wobble on the way to this point, however. On first becoming leader, Mr Duncan Smith confounded Tory modernisers by taking on significant parts of their "inclusiveness" agenda.

He also declared his party would champion "the vulnerable" - the needy and deprived living on housing estates and on the breadline.

But fears soon spread that, like Mr Hague before him, he had abandoned this approach after it failed to pay dividends fast enough in Tory poll ratings. Mr Duncan Smith's speech outlining his "fair deal" vision renews their optimism that social inclusion is still very much on the agenda.

The speech was long planned, long worked on and undeniably one of the most accomplished of his leadership. Hence the mini-conference style choreography to reflect its significance in Tory eyes, with wife Betsy joining Mr Duncan Smith on the platform for his standing ovation from the party faithful at the end.

It was also rather New Labour. Aside from the Labour-bashing parts, Tony Blair could have delivered much of it any time in the run-up to the 1997 election.

In fact he very possibly did, chock-full as it was of references to "fair deals" for everyone and "security and opportunity" for all, of "no contradiction between delivering prosperity and world-class public services", standing up for people who "play by the rules" and "nurturing every person's full potential".

Middle England appeal

But the Tory leader also took care to include in his vision speech a hard policy with direct appeal to the very Middle England voters his party needs to win back from Labour: scrapping tuition fees.

Controversy over student funding and university places could prove a rich seam for the Tories to mine. On the present controversy over tuition fees, Tory MPs are fond of remarking, "even Margaret [Thatcher] knew not to go that far!"

Mixed government messages over issues such as setting targets for working-class students also only serve to fan the concerns of the more established university-going classes.

For months now Mr Duncan Smith and his shadow cabinet have had little detailed answer to the question of what their alternative policies for government would be. On Tuesday he unveiled one of them, and more are promised in coming weeks.

It's long way from a programme for government just yet; but it is the start his supporters have been waiting for.

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09 May 03  |  Politics
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