Peter Oborne

The road to revival

In spite of the bickering, the Tories have been in bullish mood in Blackpool this week, says Peter Oborne. A leadership contest now would be boring, and would bring the party into contempt

Iain Duncan Smith is fatter and pinker in the face these days, perhaps the result of too many dinners. He is more assertive. Media training over the summer has given him a certain bravado and made him more tactile. He looks people in the eye more often. His handlers were pleased by the way he dealt, in difficult circumstances, with Sir David Frost last weekend and a no-holds-barred Richard Littlejohn interview on Sky this week. Never has he been more upbeat and hopeful than before this Blackpool party conference. For some months now, Duncan Smith has been convinced that October 2003 would mark the turning point in Tory fortunes and bring an end to his two-year ordeal. He believed that it would resolve once and for all the mutterings about his leadership and provide a platform for a massive Tory revival in the polls.

The basis of this confidence was neither trivial nor unreasonable. Two years ago, shortly after being made Conservative leader, Duncan Smith set in motion a root-and-branch policy review. Under the leadership of Greg Clarke at Conservative Central Office, the review focused on health, education and transport. It has been a sober, disciplined but creative process; its purpose was to restore a sense of direction and momentum to the Tory party, first in opposition and then in government. In structure, the review team was modelled on Margaret Thatcher’s famous No. 10 policy unit of the early 1980s. Outsiders from industry, the universities and the Civil Service were drafted in on secondment, serious studies were made of how public services worked overseas, and the lessons then applied to Britain. Core Tory principles guided this process. The first was that government should get off the backs of the people, and that schools and hospitals flourish best when taken out of state control.

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