Michael Brown: How far dare Mr Duncan Smith go without breaking the consensus?

'The prospect of an early referendum on the euro might be to the advantage of the Conservatives'
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The Independent Online

The task facing Iain Duncan Smith at next week's Conservative Party conference is more onerous than it was for either of the other two main party leaders. Having been Tory leader for only three weeks, Mr Duncan Smith has been unable and, rightly, unwilling to establish himself as a combative opponent of the Government. He has given every encouragement and unconditional support to the Prime Minister, and seems determined to stand by the Government throughout the international crisis.

But at least Mr Duncan Smith will be the first Tory leader to be spared the hijacking of his conference by Baroness Thatcher. And on this occasion her absence will not be missed. Traditionally she has been a star turn, but her extraordinary intervention yesterday seemed strangely irrelevant rather than just unhelpful.

Perhaps it was just the withdrawal symptoms of a leader from a past age, simply envious of Tony Blair bestriding the world stage – as she was once used to doing – that set her off. But her influence on contemporary politics and on the Conservative Party came to a psychological end at the last general election. For the first time since her demise in 1990, her comments did not send a frisson through either Conservative Central Office or the wider political establishment.

Once it would have been necessary for the full force of the Tory press office to consider the problem of "handling" a Maggie outburst, but yesterday there was barely a reaction from the political establishment or Conservative Central Office.

Mr Duncan Smith is the first of her three successors not to have to look over his shoulder and wonder what she is about to say. Suddenly there is now a heavy discount applied to her views – even if they still command the headlines. On this occasion she was simply ignored by both Tony Blair and the whole of the Tory party. And that will mean that, in future, she will be ignored by the media and probably by public opinion. The outrageous views she expressed are a sign that this is the only way that she can now expect to get a hearing.

No doubt Mr Duncan Smith's speech to his troops will be dominated by international events, and he will spend much time reiterating his willingness to give the Prime Minister his full support. But how far dare he present himself as the alternative prime minister without seeming to break the spirit of consensus that has overtaken British politics since 11 September?

Domestic political issues have been put on hold, but soon it will be necessary for Mr Duncan Smith to address himself to areas of policy that arouse controversy. Fortunately, he can be less squeamish now that we have had an opportunity to consider Mr Blair's Brighton speech. Mr Blair has said that he considers that the international crisis reinforces the case for joining the single currency, subject to the five economic tests, in this Parliament. In this passage he has signalled an end to the temporary party political truce – at least on Europe.

It would be bizarre if the Tory leader did not reply to this view, but how does Mr Duncan Smith respond in kind without immediately opening his leadership to attack from Europhiles within his own party? Perhaps the answer is to consider that the prospect of an early referendum, in the present Parliament, might actually be to the advantage of the Tories.

Hitherto, the Tory strategy has been to delay for as long as possible the holding of a referendum. Until now, the strategy has been to try to prevent a referendum from being held in the hope that the Tories might win power. This would, in itself, have immediately ended the argument. But it must be obvious to everyone that simply waiting for a Tory victory is no longer a viable strategy.

We are now in a situation where the probability is that a referendum could be held during the present Parliament. Mr Duncan Smith should try, for two reasons, to get that referendum held as soon as possible. His best hope of slaying this dragon is to defeat the issue in the referendum, rather than at – or after – the next election.

First, the earlier the referendum is held, the better the chances for the "no" campaign. The longer the Prime Minister has to build up his case for entry, the longer he has to seduce British public opinion. Second, the earlier the issue is resolved, in the present Parliament, the better the Tories can face the voters without the issue overshadowing, dividing and inhibiting their chances at the next election.

So, since Mr Blair in effect threw down the gauntlet in Brighton, Mr Duncan Smith could steal a march on him by saying, in his own conference speech, that the Tories would welcome a referendum as soon as possible. "We accept, Prime Minister, that now is the time for a decision. We are certain of the arguments and we are ready for the fight" would be a masterstroke of boldness, and would trap Mr Blair. At a stroke, it would also remove some of the poison from the Tory party.

Pro-European Clarke supporters would be less likely to cause trouble if they could see that they would be given an opportunity to divert their efforts from destroying his leadership into concentrating on presenting their arguments in favour of the referendum. If all sections of the Tory party are clamouring for a referendum, it is the Prime Minister who is then put under pressure. Although this is a high-risk strategy, I am convinced that a clear "no" vote in a referendum is possible, and is the only way, now, that the Tories can hope to defeat the single currency. But the sooner the better.

For the rest of the conference, there will be little attention focusing on the Tories – which is probably just as well. They are in Blackpool for less than 48 hours. This will give little opportunity for the malcontent Portillistas or Clarkites to command the airwaves. Just as with the Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the events at Blackpool will be a sideshow.

I suspect that this autumn's events have changed the nature of party conferences irrevocably. With increased stage management comes the ability to truncate regularly, for fear of indiscipline off stage. I suspect annual seaside conferences have already become a relic of a past political era. As with American pre-election conventions, conferences every four years may soon become the British norm. And Mr Blair and Mr Duncan Smith may well relish such a prospect.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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