Iain Duncan Smith yesterday mounted a pre-emptive defence of his leadership as questions about his ability to lift the Tories out of the electoral doldrums were again circulating in the party.
Mocked by Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy for suggesting that his victory at the Brent East by-election on Thursday was a "strategic blunder", Mr Duncan Smith failed to muster much enthusiasm for an hour-long speech to the Scottish Conservative Party in Perth.
Some Tory MPs, who have long doubted that Mr Duncan Smith is capable of making the headway in the polls needed to unseat the Government, are now privately suggesting that their leader's future depends on a successful, rallying speech at the Tory conference in Blackpool early next month. Yesterday's speech was seen as his first test in this respect.
Dismissing as "utter nonsense" the notion that the Lib Dems had become the main party of opposition, the Tory leader accused them of playing to left-wing voters and of "deceit and double standards".
While the speech won a standing ovation at the end, there was only polite applause from the audience of 300 Conservative activists as he defended the result in which they came a poor third with 16 per cent of the vote - a 2 per cent decline on the general election.
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