Image: Conservative Party Leader Duncan Smith Gives Keynote Address To Party Conference
The embattled leader of Britain's opposition Conservative Party vowed defiantly on Thursday to challenge Tony Blair for the premiership, despite a rebellion against him that has thrown his party into crisis.
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msnbc.com
updated 10/10/2003 1:34:33 AM ET 2003-10-10T05:34:33

The war in Iraq spawned widespread distrust of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government, but as he moves through the toughest period of his career, he can be thankful that the opposition Tories are faring even worse. This week’s Conservative party conference was fraught with infighting and plots to depose the party’s leader.

SIX-YEARS AFTER seizing power from the Conservatives (also known as Tories), Blair’s government has been devastated by a series of setbacks that would normally force it to make way for the opposition.

The failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has undermined the prime minister’s principal rationale for going to war, and the high-profile inquiry into the suicide of a top weapons expert has heightened suspicion over the government’s possible manipulation of intelligence.

But, No. 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s residence, remains a distant goal for the Conservatives — Britain’s oldest and once most powerful party.

Despite their poignant history as the party of Benjamin Disraeli, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, the Conservatives have floundered in the opposition since they were swept from power in 1997, weakened by internal bickering and divided over key policy issues, most notably over the adoption of the single European currency, the euro.

“People think the Conservative Party is male, pale and stale,” said Mathew Cain, a political strategist for the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

According to Cain, the Conservatives need to be more innovative to attract voters. They need to “ditch their past and offer an optimistic vision of the future,” he said.

A Populus poll published in The Times newspaper on Monday put voter support for Blair’s Labor Party at 36 percent, five percentage points ahead of the Conservatives at 31 percent. The Liberal Democrats have made some headway due to their opposition to the war but still trail the two main parties.

“The Conservatives have been spectacularly unsuccessful at capitalizing on Blair’s woes,” said Steven Everts, senior research fellow for the Center for European Reform (CER).

DETERMINED LEADER FACES REBELLION

A determined Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative Party leader, told the annual conference in Blackpool on Thursday, “My mission is to take the Conservative Party back to government.... I won’t allow anything or anyone to get in my way. We must destroy this double-dealing, deceitful, incompetent, shallow, inefficient, ineffective, corrupt, mendacious, fraudulent, shameful, lying government, once and for all.”

However, before facing Blair in the next election, slated for 2005, Duncan Smith will have to reassure his own party that he is the man for the job. Dissenters blame the self-styled “quiet man” for failing to raise the party’s profile in his two years of leadership.

“Right from the frog in the throat problem to not being able to think on his feet, Duncan Smith doesn’t have the wit to see what’s happening,” said Keith Dowding, a professor of political science at the London School of Economics (LSE).

The Populus poll published in The Times suggested that 56 percent of Conservative voters would be more likely to back the party under a different leader. Thirty-six percent of general voters agreed with that view.

At the convention on the Irish Sea coast, party members reportedly conspired to rebel against him.

InsertArt(2037273)According to the British press, disenchanted lawmakers were pushing for a vote of no confidence in Duncan Smith and had secured 12 of the necessary 25 signatures by Thursday. The party’s leader responded by saying that a no-confidence vote would plunge the party into turmoil.

Asked Wednesday on Sky News what his reaction would be if the signatures were gathered, he said, “Get lost. I’m going straight to the finish, and I’m going to take this party through to the general election.”

Despite the media hype of a coup attempt, Duncan Smith’s keynote speech was met with an eight-and-a-half-minute standing ovation.

Cain, from the IPPR, called it the best speech of Duncan Smith’s career, saying he “did a tremendous amount to divert challenge.”

“They could spend the next 10 years stressing over who their leader is; their time would be better spent engaging people and broadening their constituency,” Cain said.

TORIES GIVEN LITTLE CHANCE

Despite Blair’s fall in popularity, and regardless of whether Duncan Smith remains at the helm, analysts and media reports agree that the Tories stand little chance of stopping the Labor Party from entering a third term.

Opposition to Blair has mainly come from left-wing party members and constituents who opposed his decision to participate in the Iraq war and disapprove of his reform policies to the aging welfare state.

While such dissent has harmed Blair’s personal ratings, Britons who see the prime minister as being too conservative are unlikely to switch their vote to a party of that name.

As Blair continues to edge the Labor Party rightward, the Conservatives need “to come up with new ideas that could change the ideological spectrum of the country,” according to Dowding of LSE.

“Or,” he said, “you could also look at it another way: The Conservatives have won. Blair has taken over their policies.”

MSNBC.com’s Jennifer Carlile is based in London.

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