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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 October, 2003, 16:18 GMT 17:18 UK
Howard plays it straight

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent in Blackpool

Anyone looking for signs that shadow Chancellor Michael Howard has his eye on Iain Duncan Smith's job searched through his conference speech in vain.

Howard has been whispered as leadership possible
Just hours before he made what all agreed was one of the more powerful platform addresses, it was rumoured he was being lined up as a stop-gap Tory leader.

That may or may not be true. But he did absolutely nothing in his speech to aid the gossips.

Quite the reverse, in fact. He mentioned Iain Duncan Smith's leadership in favourable terms no fewer than four times.

The conspirators' ears probably pricked up when he started talking about the lessons the Tories needed to learn from what happened to Labour in opposition.

Cut taxes

And they most definitely paid close attention when he said Mr Duncan Smith knew "we must only make promises we can keep."

A case can be made that Iain Duncan Smith and his resolutely careful shadow chancellor have differences over precisely what to promise on tax cuts at the next election
One of those promises was that : "We do plan to cut taxes."

That phrase has been trawled over in an attempt to suggest it is at odds with Iain Duncan Smith's pre-conference pledge to cut taxes.

It is - a bit. Mr Duncan Smith suggested there would be concrete proposals for tax cuts in the next party manifesto.

Mr Howard, who hopes to be the man carrying out those policies, does not want to go that far.

There is potential here for claims by Labour of a Tory split. It seems far from a fatal division, however.

Frenzy

Similarly, the shadow chancellor's speech was not his Gordon Brown moment - where he set out his leadership credentials while stressing the philosophical differences with his leader.

There were some similarities between the two, but that was because Mr Howard's address simply reminded representatives that he was a pretty good performer.

So where does that leave all the speculation? Truthfully, no clearer than before the speech.

Yes a case can be made that Iain Duncan Smith and his resolutely careful shadow chancellor have differences over precisely what to promise on tax cuts at the next election.

But the performance did nothing to play into the leadership frenzy that is still gripping this conference.




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