The Week in Politics: For once, Duncan Smith backs a winner in the policy stakes

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The Independent Online

The most important event in a momentous political week was not Clare Short's explosive resignation or Tony Blair's decision to stand up to Gordon Brown over the euro. In my view, it was a speech made by Iain Duncan Smith.

In case you think I have gone potty, let me remind you that Mr Duncan Smith promised to abolish university tutition fees and scrap the Government's target to see 50 per cent of those aged 18-30 in higher education by 2010. Simply, this is the best thing IDS has done since becoming Tory leader, a long-overdue policy statement that is attention-grabbing, populist and credible.

I sensed sighs of approval in living rooms all around the country as people watched the television news reports on the Tory plan. The Government argues that the Opposition's figures do not add up but has been thrown on to the defensive. Labour's plans to allow universities to charge top-up fees are unpopular and will produce the mother of backbench rebellions in the next parliamentary session.

The Tories' plan is clever because they would pay for it by scrapping the "Mickey Mouse" courses we all know exist. (I am told that Labour's 50 per cent target was made up on the back of an envelope.)

Mr Duncan Smith's speech, launching his general election campaign theme of "a fair deal for everyone", follows new research by the Tories' pollsters, YouGov. Instead of dividing the electorate into ABs and C2s, YouGov has broken them down into "political junkies" (PJs) and "Big Brother watchers" (BBs). Both groups may account for 25-30 per cent of the population but are very different. PJs probably watch the TV news most evenings, listen to Radio 4 and read a broadsheet paper. They are pretty fixed in their political views.

BBs watch Big Brother and probably read a tabloid paper. They do not follow the minutiae of politics but they are interested when decisions affect them. Crucially, as party allegiances break down. they are a growing band of floating voters. In short, they decide elections.

YouGov's work was presented to Tory MPs at their strategy session in Buckinghamshire a week ago. It will be published shortly in a Hansard Society report by Professor Stephen Coleman at Oxford University and Stephan Shakespeare, YouGov's director of opinion research, timed to coincide with the return of Big Brother to our TV screens.

The Tories' pledge on university fees was directed at the BBs, though my hunch is that it will appeal to quite a lot of PJs too. The BBs include a lot of former Tory supporters who either switched to Mr Blair in the 1997 or 2001 elections or could not bring themselves to vote for anyone.

If the Tories could woo them, they would be back in business. According to shadow cabinet members, the party's research shows that this group is disillusioned with Labour. They still respect Mr Blair and probably feel he was right over Iraq. But they are increasingly unlikely to vote Labour – a problem for the Prime Minister.

The polling suggests these people may be inching towards the Tories but still don't really know what the party is about. They were prepared to pay a little more tax to improve public services but now worry that last month's 1p rise in national insurance payments will not make a difference. They believe much government spending is wasted.

In Tuesday's speech, Mr Duncan Smith hit all the right notes for the BBs by promising to cut "waste" and provide a "fair deal" for "hard-working families". He also signalled a return to the "caring Conservatism" he launched last year but then appeared to abandon by a shift to hard-edged policies on tax cuts, asylum and Europe.

It is easy to mock Mr Duncan Smith's speech as "motherhood and apple pie". Many of the words could have been uttered by Mr Blair and the underlying theme could be summarised as "economic efficiency and social justice", which Neil Kinnock coined when he occupied the Commons office now used by IDS.

But at least the Tories are trying to reoccupy the Middle Britain territory invaded by Mr Blair in 1997. Mr Duncan Smith promises to speak up for the "law-abiding, hard-working, patriotic majority" and the disadvantaged. The impressive Oliver Letwin – who, I hear, is known as "Oliver Leftwing" by Tories in West Sussex – says Labour's obsession with targets means the system pursues "easy cases" such as speeding drivers caught on camera rather than criminals and yobs.

The challenge for the Tories will be to produce five more policies like their pledge on universities. It will be a tall order. Their research suggests that people are nervous of change and back-door privatisation will not be the answer. Forget Ms Short and the euro. The voters' verdict on the parties' approach to public services – and their willingness to pay for them – will certainly decide the next election.

¿ Rumours were rife at Westminster that Clare Short's resignation was part of a plot to replace Mr Blair with her ally Gordon Brown. But the Chancellor surprised guests at a party for the outgoing TUC boss, John Monks, by rolling his eyes to the ceiling when Ms Short's resignation was mentioned. It seems Calamity Clare has become a "former ally".

¿ The other day, a Blair aide was whinging to me about alleged anti-government bias on Radio 4's Today programme, and singled out Norman Smith, a political correspondent who often does the "early doors" shift before 7am. The next day, I read a newspaper report on complaints of anti-Tory coverage by the Beeb. Who was the Tories' target? Step forward Norman Smith. Sounds as if he's doing a pretty good job.