Iain Duncan Smith has been warned that his future as leader of the Conservatives depends on a convincing performance at the party conference and a rise in fortunes by the 2003 local elections.
As he approaches his first anniversary as leader, he has been advised of concerns that he has failed to make a dent in opinion polling or – following the ham-fisted sacking of David Davis as party chairman – to end in-fighting in the party. Senior Tories, anxious to see a revival of Conservative popularity, insist they want results soon – or a new leader.
"A year into his leadership, Iain has failed to make the impact we were hoping he would," said one. "There might not be an obvious alternative to succeed him but that doesn't mean we will put up with failure for ever."
Next month's party conference – the last gathering of the Tory faithful was overshadowed by the events of 11 September – is being seen as a key test. Many, including some in the shadow cabinet, believe it is crucial that the event in Bournemouth is used to demonstrate how far the party has come on policy and to avoid personality conflict.
One Conservative source said: "A lot of work has been going on behind the scenes and it is gaining in strength. But there remains a perception that little is happening and that there is no leadership and no sense of direction and purpose.
"That is where the David Davis episode has been most damaging. It has bolstered the view that we don't really know where we are going and that is what has to be tackled at the conference."
Mr Duncan Smith will inevitably have to put up with sniping from the sidelines during conference week. The Tory left, which supported the ex-Chancellor Kenneth Clarke's failed bid for the leadership, is joining forces with the so-called "Portillistas", devotees of Michael Portillo, for a joint reception on the fringes of the conference.
The reception, hosted by Conservative Mainstream and the new think-tank Cchange, is to be addressed by Steve Norris, the former Tory candidate for London mayor who has not disguised his view that the party should go down a more liberal track. On the right, allies of Mr Davis are still said to be "furious" at the way in which he was treated, and continue to see him as a possible future leader.
Mr Duncan Smith admitted last week that he had only just reached "base camp" in his strategy to revive the Conservatives. He did, however, claim to have "settled" the party – an assertion his critics reject. A Tory source said: "For 11 months, Iain kept the party together. Now the old rifts have come back to haunt us and we'll do well to get away without negative coverage about personalities in the next few weeks."
Mr Duncan Smith has taken some steps, however. Former prime ministers Baroness Thatcher and Sir Edward Heath will be banned from his revamped "minimalist" conference platform next month.
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