The plot thickens

THE febrile atmosphere of rumours feeding off rumours hit the Conservatives this week, battered not just by the severe storms which swept in from the Irish Sea across Blackpool promenade but by a concerted attempt to undermine Iain Duncan Smith's leadership in a campaign gleefully aided and abetted by Fleet Street.

THE febrile atmosphere of rumours feeding off rumours hit the Conservatives this week, battered not just by the severe storms which swept in from the Irish Sea across Blackpool promenade but by a concerted attempt to undermine Iain Duncan Smith's leadership in a campaign gleefully aided and abetted by Fleet Street.

Mr Duncan Smith's speech to the last day of the Tory conference yesterday was billed as the "defining moment of his leadership." But the outward show of support from Conservatives delegates masks a deep crisis at the top of the party's leadership. More than 50% of activists questioned by on-line polling organisation YouGov for the Daily Telegraph now think they made a mistake in electing him, while 44% think he should quit.

Politics is a thankless job - just ask Neil Kinnock, who battled against extreme elements in the party only to be rejected twice by the electorate.

As he relaxes with his wife Betsy and children this weekend, IDS may well consider whether its worth keeping his job if a challenge materialises. Yes, the party faithful cheered him yesterday - but don't forget that in 1990, the Tory conference cheered Margaret Thatcher to the rafters and within six weeks, she had been chucked out of office by her MPs.


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IDS's instinct is to defy everyone and fight to the finish. Yet he must know deep down that a blood-on-the carpet leadership contest would damage the Conservative Party, perhaps fatally.

It's not just MPs who are concerned at the lack of progress by the Conservatives in capturing public support. The party's big money donors and some constituency chairmen are now becoming alarmed.

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Given all the Government's current difficulties, the Tories should be miles ahead of Labour in the opinion polls. But although Labour is hovering around 35% the Conservatives are battling with the Liberal Democrats for second place on 30%.

If the Tories are to ask IDS to stand aside, it will have to be before Christmas to allow any successor time to bed in before an election. Despite the YouGov poll findings, I believe any contest will be viewed by 300,000 or so Tory Party members with horror.

Former Foreign Secretary Lord Hurd compared IDS's position with that of Ted Heath in 1970. Heath was given no chance against the charismatic Harold Wilson, but stormed to victory as the Labour government fell apart, weighed down by its trade union paymasters.

To expect today's Tories to emulate Heath is little short of crazy. In 1970, the Tories could still win seats in inner London, Bristol, Manchester, Leeds, Cardiff and Edinburgh. Rural Wales and Scotland as well as the West Country voted heavily for the Conservatives. There is no sign today of any Tory revival in the major conurbations.

And 1970 was basically a straight fight between the Conservatives and Labour. Today's Tories have to fight the Liberal Democrats in rural and suburban seats as well as Labour in the cities.

The size of the task looks impossible. Would a different leader make any difference? Marginally perhaps, but to suggest Kenneth Clarke, David Davis or Michael Howard could lift the scales off the eyes of the electorate and allow them to see the Conservatives in a new light is fanciable at best, and probably downright naive.

YouGov's poll found that a majority of Tory activists would prefer a Michael Howard-Oliver Letwin team leading the party if IDS does stand aside. Michael Howard is a strong personality, brilliant orator, and liked by constituency workers. But it is questionable if he would make any difference to the average voter at an election

This week the Conservatives unrolled a series of major policy announcements, some of which would worry the Government if it thought the public was taking any notice.

But with the headlines dominated by yet another leadership crisis, the average voter is unlikely to be aware what the Tories are preparing to offer on pensions, policing, and education.

The tragedy is that the Labour Party does not deserve to be re-elected by another a landslide. Tony Blair's government is fiddling with the constitution; parliament is constantly ignored . Health and transport on the whole are no better than they were when Labour was elected in 1997.

Politicians are not trusted any more and the questionable way in which this country went to war with Iraq on the basis of weapons of mass destruction which did not exist underlines that.

The number of people who vote at the next election is likely to fall to between 50 and 55%. And it cannot be good for the nation to re-elect, under the first-past-the-post system, a Labour government - or indeed any party - to dominate the country.

Tony Blair, who stamped his authority on his party conference, is heading for a third term with a thumping majority. And the Tories are in no position to stop it.

The 21st century Conservative Party has learned no lessons from history. Its reputation for being the most feared political fighting machine in the world was based on exposing its opponents' weaknesses combined with a steely eyed determination to win at all costs.

The Tories will get nowhere until they want to be winners once again. Constantly changing leader tells the electorate that the party is divided and in a crisis.

The choice is stark for the Conservative Party, but the outcome will be the same. Dump IDS in the next few weeks and be defeated in 2005 under a new leader or allow him to lead the party to defeat at the next election.

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