Iain Duncan Smith has admitted that winning the next election, while still the objective of the Conservative Party, will prove a huge task.
In his New Year message released yesterday, the Tory leader told the party that it should never again have to experience the humiliation of two crushing election defeats. But he warned activists that the extent of the task of overturning a Labour majority "should not be underestimated".
Mr Duncan Smith said he intended to repay the trust the party had put in him, when it chose him as leader, by rebuilding the party's fortunes.
He said the last election defeat was "a terrible blow" to all those who worked so hard only to see Labour return to power.
"In September, in our first democratic ballot, party members gave me the greatest honour of my life when you elected me leader of the Conservative Party," he said.
"You have placed in me a great trust. There is only one way in which I intend to repay it. Winning the next general election is the objective that must unite the entire party. Our task is a huge challenge and should not be underestimated," he said.
The Tories are on course to make gains in council elections in May, according to a survey by the Local Government Chronicle Elections Centre at the University of Plymouth.
However, Francis Maude, a former shadow chancellor, warned yesterday that the Tories could not afford to "just wait for Labour to make mistakes". Speaking on BBC Radio 4, Mr Maude said the Tories had "a great instinct for survival", but the party had to "earn credibility". He said: "It is our duty to be in tune with contemporary society."
In his message, Mr Duncan Smith said he planned to make the Conservatives the "champions of first-class public services" and to make improving health care, transport and education a priority. "It must be our party that brings forward the practical solutions that offer greater diversity and choice and, above all, drive up standards," the Tory leader said. "At the same time, we will continue to stand for the dynamic, enterprise economy that underpins our aspirations."
Liam Fox, the shadow Health Secretary, released figures that he said showed the Government was unlikely to meet its targets for reducing the number of people waiting more than 15 months for hospital treatment.
"The total number of people waiting for admission to hospital in each health authority ranges from 2,741 to 24,236. It is disgraceful that some are waiting more than 15 months. For example, 534 patients have waited for more than 15 months for admission in West Surrey," Dr Fox said. "These figures prove how difficult it will be for Labour to meet their March 2002 target for a maximum wait of 15 months."
Also yesterday, the private Carlton Club, which refuses to admit women as full members, threatened to retaliate against Mr Duncan Smith's decision to reject its offer of membership. The club warned that it could cut off donations to the party amounting to £1m.
Sir Peter Emery, a former MP and chairman of the London club's political committee, said he was "more than surprised" by Mr Duncan Smith's decision since the club had given large sums to the party. "I would have thought Mr Duncan Smith would have wanted that to continue," he said.
There are suggestions that the Conservatives are suffering serious cash problems, although the party has denied that its auditors, PricewaterhouseCoopers, have refused to sign off its accounts.Reuse content