Fresh blow to Duncan Smith

By Graham DinesPolitical EditorConservative Party was rocked by dramatic resignation last night that could signal a challenge to the leadership of Iain Duncan Smith.

By Graham Dines

Political Editor

Conservative Party was rocked by dramatic resignation last night that could signal a challenge to the leadership of Iain Duncan Smith.

Reigate MP Crispin Blunt – little known outside Westminster – quit his front-bench post, claiming that Mr Duncan Smith was taking the party nowhere and should be replaced now.

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The devastating attack, critically timed to overshadow the overnight local council election results, was seen as the first moves in a leadership challenge from either David Davis or former Home Secretary Michael Howard.

The timing of move baffled senior Tories as the party made some significant gains. Hyndburn – based on Accrington in Lancashire – East Staffordshire, Stratford-on-Avon, Congleton, Worcester, and Exeter all fell to the Conservatives.

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Brentwood, one of the Liberal Democrat flagship councils in the East of England, slipped to no overall control as the Conservatives won a number of seats.

Senior Tories struggled to put a brave face of the resignation. South Suffolk MP Tim Yeo, Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary and Mr Blunt's boss, insisted: "I don't believe that anyone in the Conservative parliamentary party thinks it would be a good idea to embark on a leadership contest. We need that like a hole in the head."

However, Labour's Commons Leader John Reid said: "It is a disaster for the whole party."

Liberal Democrat parliamentary party chairman Mark Oaten added: "The knives are out before the results of local elections are even in."

But the renewed mayhem in the Conservative Party delighted Labour and the Liberal Democrats, claiming it showed the knives were out for the Conservative leader even before the votes were counted.

Mr Blunt, the Tories' second-in-command on trade and industry, timed his announcement to cause maximum damage.

"Whatever the headline results in the local elections, the fact is the Conservative Party is making no real progress," he said.

"We carry the handicap of a leader whom Conservatives in Parliament and outside feel unable to present to the electorate as a credible alternative Prime Minister.

"He has failed to make the necessary impact on the electorate and I don't see any prospect of him doing so. If we are a political party that is serious about regaining power, our leader has to now be replaced."

n In the Blackwater Estuary district of Maldon, where the political water has been so blue the Liberal Democrats did not field a single candidate, the Conservatives were on course for another four years of power.

Divisive issues in the quiet agricultural and sailing district were difficult to find in the run up to the election, but there were fears among some Tories that one of Britain's newest political parties might break the mould of Maldon politics.

However, the Tories were off to a good start last night, winning their first four seats and the possible surge from the Independent Democratic Alliance had yet happened.

Meanwhile, politicians of all colours have been united in Uttlesford in their effort to fight plans to add three new runways at Stansted Airport and halt a Government scheme to cover large swathes of the district with tens of thousands of new homes.

That might have signalled that yesterday's election could have been a lifeless affair, but there was still plenty of scope for disagreement, with issues ranging from steep council tax bills to protecting the environment while providing affordable homes for local youngsters.

Until voters went to the polls, control of the council was held by a Conservative-Independent Alliance, with the powerful opposition party the Liberal Democrats still hoping last night they could snatch the reigns of power.

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