Duncan Smith pulls through by a vote

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Iain Duncan Smith wasted little time in launching his campaign to win the hearts, minds and votes of the Conservative Party's 300,000 members after qualifying for the decisive ballot.

The shadow Defence Secretary had a quick drink with campaign workers at his headquarters in Lord North Street, Westminster. Then he was whisked away to Battersea Heliport so that he could address a dinner of 300 Tory activists in Shrewsbury.

Mr Duncan Smith only scraped in one vote ahead of Michael Portillo. Although he insisted he had always been in second place, some aides believed he would get the important psychological boost of topping the poll.

Now Mr Duncan Smith has come down to earth a little. He knows that he faces a tough fight against Kenneth Clarke in the members' ballot. It is believed that he would have preferred to fight Mr Portillo.

Mr Duncan Smith, 47, has been the surprise package in the Tory race. Even allies admit he started as the outsider. Yet he has run a near-faultless campaign and has managed to achieve momentum at each crucial stage, unlike his two main rivals.

His team is led by Mike Penning, a fellow Eurosceptic who fought Thurrock at the general election and has learnt some useful lessons from fighting two leadership contests in John Redwood's campaigns in 1995 and 1997.

One was to play down the candidate's level of support so that at each round of voting the result looked better than expected. When Mr Duncan Smith's team said that it had 29 first-round votes in the bag, it privately reckoned on winning 39, as it duly did.

Mr Duncan Smith has been more cautious on policy than either Mr Portillo or Mr Clarke. Yesterday he denied being the "no change" candidate. If he wins the ballot of grassroots members, he is determined to force through changes on policy and organisation which some MPs and members will find unpalatable. But he sees little point in shouting them from the rooftops at the moment, since it would only create enemies at a time when he needs friends.

From now on, however, things can only get tougher for the former captain in the Scots Guards. Mr Duncan Smith's policies on public services, so far rather sketchy, will be subjected to much greater scrutiny before the members' ballot closes in September.

He can also expect the media to get personal. Critics see him as an older version of William Hague, a comparison that he encouraged yesterday by describing his programme as "the common ground" – eerily reminiscent of Mr Hague's phrase, "common sense Conservatism".

Perhaps some party members will get cold feet when they think through the implications of electing Mr Duncan Smith. His opponents will warn that he is not the man to win back the Tories' lost generation of voters. But after his successful campaign among MPs, they will no longer be writing him off.

Last night, Mr Duncan Smith arrived as a force to be reckoned with. Whatever else happens, he could be said to have achieved something by destroying Mr Portillo's political career.