Iain Duncan Smith's leadership of the Conservatives was facing a crisis last night after a series of poor opinion poll ratings, claims of a BBC plot against him and fresh unrest among MPs and party activists.
As Mr Duncan Smith arrived at the party conference in Blackpool, an Independent/ NOP poll found that more voters view the Liberal Democrats as the real opposition to the Government than the Tories.
The poll also found that nearly half of voters have no idea who the leader of the Conservatives is, and even 28 per cent of Tory supporters are not aware that Mr Duncan Smith leads their party, two years after he was elected.
The Conservative leadership hopes to use this week to set out a series of new policies for the next election, such as increasing all pensions by £7 a week, elected police chiefs and detailed plans to give patients and parents greater choice.
But Mr Duncan Smith became embroiled in fresh questions about his leadership, with claims that Tory "modernisers" had colluded with the BBC over allegations about the brief role of his wife, Betsy as his Commons secretary. He said reports of alleged improprieties were "false lies" and he would sue any publication that aired them.
Several backbenchers are expected to meet their constituency chairmen in secret tomorrow to gauge the level of unease among the grass roots about their leader and the party's recent trouncing by the Liberal Democrats in the Brent East by-election.
The Independent understands that at least two constituency associations have passed motions of no confidence in Mr Duncan Smith in recent weeks. If there is evidence that rank-and-file members are unhappy, party grandees and MPs are ready to ask him to step aside.
Michael Howard, the shadow Chancellor, has already discussed in private with the former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd a plan to bring "big beasts" such as Kenneth Clarke and Michael Portillo back into the fold.
Mr Howard admitted yesterday that the party's new pensions policy would not leave the poorest claimants of the pension credit much better off. He was also more circumspect than Mr Duncan Smith about firm promises to cut taxes in the next parliament.
The NOP poll for The Independent shows that 41 per cent of voters now think that the Liberal Democrats are the real opposition to Labour, compared with 39 per cent for the Tories. Twelve per cent felt that neither offered real opposition, and 8 per cent didn't know.
When asked to name the leader of the Tories, just 53 per cent of all voters and 71 per cent of Tory supporters correctly identified him. Some 45 per cent of all voters didn't know he was the leader and 28 per cent of party supporters were similarly unaware of him. Two per cent of the public even believed that William Hague was still leader.
Francis Maude, one of Mr Portillo's main allies, went public with his concerns about Mr Duncan Smith. Asked on GMTV's Sunday Programme if "the leadership is an issue", Mr Maude replied: "Yes, it has been for a long time, yes.
"We ought to be doing better than we are - I don't think anyone has any illusions about that. I shouldn't think Iain is at all happy about where we are ... We're not benefiting to anything like the degree we need to from Labour's discomfiture and fall."
A YouGov/Sky News poll published today will also spell bad news for the Tory leader. A majority of those questioned (57 per cent) said Mr Duncan Smith was the wrong person to lead the Conservative Party. But he will be buoyed by another of the polls' findings. When asked if they were more likely to vote Tory if Mr Howard, Mr Portillo or Mr Clarke were leader, most (66 per cent, 51 per cent and 51 per cent respectively) said it would make no difference.
Poll details, reports, page 10; Leading article, page 16
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