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Last Updated: Sunday, 12 October, 2003, 22:37 GMT 23:37 UK
Has IDS stopped the plots?

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent in Blackpool

The Tory party now has one brutally straightforward question to answer.

When they gazed up at Iain Duncan Smith on the Blackpool conference platform, could they picture a prime minister?

Iain Duncan Smith
Mr Duncan Smith was battling for his job
And if, after watching him doing his best for 70 minutes, the answer comes back "no" - no matter how reluctantly - then Iain Duncan Smith is on the way out. It's as uncomplicated and final as that.

No one watching Mr Duncan Smith's make or break performance doubted that he had given it his all. They have to decide whether his all is good enough.

Equally, he left his party in no doubt that he is not going down without a fight. A leadership challenge would be a bloody and divisive affair which could drag on for weeks.

So they now have to decide whether the pain would all be worthwhile if it leads to the election of a new leader.

Ecstatic

Immediately after the performance there were still those prepared to say it would be - that he had not done enough to stop the plots.

Harold Wilson may have devalued the pound, Iain Duncan Smith came close to devaluing the standing ovation.
Despite an ecstatic reception from the party grassroots, they were claiming that all eyes would now focus on Westminster, where the plotters would apparently step up their campaign to remove him.

Equally, loyalists - who have grown increasingly angry at the way the plotting has overshadowed significant policy development - leapt to his side.

They were genuinely excited and invigorated by his performance and there were plenty ready to offer comparisons with Margaret Thatcher and even Churchill.

The "get on board or get out of the way" challenge went down particularly well.

But this was a tightly managed event. It reached near-absurd heights with a total of 20 standing ovations throughout the performance.

Often the ovation would start in one corner of the hall - as if a Tory aide had planted electrodes in the seats and was pressing the zap button on cue - then spread throughout the hall like a Mexican wave.

Harold Wilson may have devalued the pound, Iain Duncan Smith came close to devaluing the standing ovation.

Gut feelings

It was clearly all done to show that this man had the support of his party members who would not take kindly to MPs ousting their leader. And to outdo Tony Blair's reception a week before.

But, with the best will in the world, it would be hard to describe this performance as a conference classic.

It is still the case that Mr Duncan Smith is not the greatest platform speaker.

He has improved, but there is still something unnatural about his whole demeanour when he gives these performances.

Oddly, he came over much better in a film shown to the conference before he delivered his speech.

It pictured him in the back of his car during his round Britain tour talking about his gut feelings, his basic beliefs and the experiences he had gathered from meeting thousands of ordinary voters.

He was more relaxed, natural and engaging than at any time during his platform performance.

And on the occasions during his speech when he did relax and give a glimpse of the man behind the image, he was far more convincing.

Brutal light

But the bottom line remains pretty simple.

Strip away the hype and the disinformation and you are left with a man battling to hang on to his job.

And the final answer to that original question will not come today in the immediate aftermath of conference excitement.

It will come over the next few weeks under the cold, brutal light of political calculation.

Mr Duncan Smith has added another factor into the equation - the pledge to go down fighting tooth and nail.

But if the plotters believe they can overcome their existing problem of finding a way of ousting Mr Duncan Smith while ensuring their candidate is eased into his place, then he is probably still in trouble.




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