The Tory Party: does anyone really care?

CONSERVATIVE Party chairman Theresa May will be visiting Stowmarket on Friday – if she's still in a job. As one of the region's top Tory MPs brands the atmosphere in the party "a cross between a prep school and a concentration camp," Political Editor GRAHAM DINES considers whether Iain Duncan Smith has a future.

CONSERVATIVE Party chairman Theresa May will be visiting Stowmarket on Friday – if she's still in a job. As one of the region's top Tory MPs brands the atmosphere in the party "a cross between a prep school and a concentration camp," Political Editor GRAHAM DINES considers whether Iain Duncan Smith has a future.

IT looks like war – and it's going to be on several fronts. As Britain prepares to join the Americans in toppling Saddam Hussein in an adventure with virtually no support at home, the Conservatives are happily knifing each other and hoping nobody will notice while Baghdad is burns.

Yes, once again the Tory Party is embroiled in another round of internecine warfare. Modernisers and traditionalists are at each other's throats – and it would be highly amusing if the future of our once greatest political machine was not in question.

The conflict, which has been simmering for months, burst into the open with the news that Mark MacGregor, an arch moderniser, had been dismissed from his post as chief executive, and replaced by hard-line right-winger and former MP Barry Legg.

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Also sacked was the director of policy Rick Nye and, reportedly, Stephen Gilbert, the campaigns director, who was masterminding the strategy for May's local government elections.

The decision is seen as a move against the party's modernisers – those who want to attract more women, gays and ethnic minorities to the party through the promotion of a more inclusive' agenda.

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It suggests a return to a traditionalist Thatcherite agenda of tax cuts and hardline policies on law and order and asylum seekers.

Iain Duncan Smith believes the changes are "meaningless" and "boring" – but if they are, why on earth do them?

It left Michael Portillo, a leader in waiting that nobody seems to want, as saying: "I can't figure what's going on at Conservative Central Office. I would be very pleased if anyone could tell me."

Don't we all. Last July, in a hasty move which nearly backfired, IDS replaced party chairman David Davis with Theresa May – who at last year's party conference asserted that voters regarded the Tories as "the nasty party" and that helping the vulnerable should be the aim of enlightened and compassionate Tories.

(Incidentally, that was always the case before Thatcher when the Tories were One Nation and the ideology of the left-leaning Tory Reform Group was to the fore. But that's another story).

Now Mrs May's own political future is said to be on the line, with Portillo describing her position as "impossible."

She is due in Stowmarket on Friday on a morale boosting visit to Suffolk Tories. If she's still in her job – and I hope, personally, that she will be – it's her morale that will need boosting by the Conservative activists with whom she is due to lunch.

Conservatives have been exasperated by the manoeuvring and briefings behind the scenes in the party. Geoffrey Van Orden, one of the party's Euro MPs and a supporter of IDS, said: "I am dismayed. There are big issues on the political agenda and the opinion polls detect a shift towards us.

"Nobody is interested in the machinations at Conservative Central Office expect a few self centred individuals who should know better than to try to wreck us."

Jeremy Savage, chairman of Suffolk and Norfolk area Conservatives, said: "We cannot in all sanity enter a leadership contest. We have got to gear ourselves up for the local elections.

"The present leader was endorsed by the membership at large. MPs should think very carefully about that before they trigger a contest."

But one of the region's leading MPs confessed to me: "Nobody really thinks that IDS is up to the job, but there is no alternative. I'd like Westminster to rally around a stop-gap to prevent a leadership election if Duncan Smith is forced out, but there are too many egos among in Parliament to allow that to happen.

"What is happening is quite bizarre. I can understand the leader wanting to surround himself with yes men, but to sack well respected individuals from Central Office has left Tory activists reeling.

"The atmosphere in the party is frightful. It's like a cross between a prep school and a concentration camp – nobody knows what to do."

Voters traditionally do not like parties which are divided - as Labour found to their cost during the party's wilderness years of the 1980s.

All great parties in a democracy like Britain are effectively coalitions, encompassing a broad church of interests. If the Conservatives want to get back into power, experience suggests that the various factions will have to find a way getting along together. Otherwise prospects look extremely bleak.

The Tories have never had a better time than to expose the Government's weaknesses. Public transport remains in chaos, the health service is straining, council tax is rocketing because of a deliberate shift of resources away from the south and east, taxes will rise in April, and the Chancellor Gordon Brown's raid on pension funds suffering from stock market falls could lead to tens of thousands of people having impoverished retirements.

But no, the Tories have got to have another meaningless leadership battle. It's all very well blaming Michael Portillo and his supporters, but the reality is, Duncan Smith's attempt to assert his authority has led to the latest bout of in-fighting.

South Suffolk MP Tim Yeo, Shadow Industry Secretary and a key supporter of Mr Portillo, has bravely stuck his head into the firing line to predict "searching questions" at any inquest should the party come unstuck in May's elections."

In the understatement of the year, Mr Yeo adds: "There is concern about the performance of the Conservative Party in opposition. We are not providing the opposition Britain needs at a time when the Government is making so many blunders and is acting in an increasingly discredited way."

If IDS should fall, the logical alternatives are either Michael Portillo or Kenneth Clarke. But the membership would not vote for them, delivering the Tory Party into the hands of David Davis.

As his right-wing views are antipathy to the Portillistas, the mutterings among the terminally ill would start all over again.

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