The Week in Politics: Two leaders in trouble - but only one ended the week with a smile

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The Independent Online

I had a strange feeling I was in the wrong place as I waited for Tony Blair to start his monthly press conference at Downing Street on Thursday. The real story was at Loughborough University, where Iain Duncan Smith was giving another "I fight on" press conference.

"I see our ranks are somewhat depleted, and I am wondering why. Actually, I'm not wondering why!" Mr Blair quipped as he surveyed the unusually empty rows of seats at No 10. The Prime Minister views the turmoil in the Conservative Party with dismay. He believes, I am told, that his old adversary Michael Howard will be his opponent at the next general election. They did battle when Mr Howard was Employment Secretary and Mr Blair, his fresh-faced shadow, rather feared him. They locked horns again in 1993: when Mr Howard moved to the Home Office, Mr Blair was already shadow Home Secretary.

Of course, the Prime Minister would prefer Mr Duncan Smith to hang on. And when a Labour aide tells you that Mr Blair thinks Mr Howard will soon be Tory leader, you have to take it with a pinch of salt. I remember how the spin doctors Alastair Campbell and Charlie Whelan stirred the Tory pot during a previous leadership crisis under John Major by cooking up a bogus memo saying the man Labour really feared was Kenneth Clarke. The report was then leaked to the media, which ran the desired 'Labour fears Clarke' stories. It was a deliberate diversion: the Tory who really frightened Labour at the time was Michael Heseltine.

It was a heart attack in 1993 that ended Lord Heseltine's hopes of leading his party, an event that Labour MPs recalled this week as they chewed the fat over Mr Blair's heart scare on Sunday.

The two events were of a very different magnitude. Mr Blair's problem was overcooked by a surprised and excited media. On Sunday night, a rather bouncy Prime Minister dropped in on the Downing Street press office as it was besieged by calls from journalists asking about his condition. He larked around in the background while his officials tried to reassure reporters by saying: "He's fine, honestly."

All the same, the scare did change the Labour landscape by reminding all of us - Mr Blair included - that he will not be in No 10 for ever. It was certainly the talk of Labour MPs in the Commons bars. "It'll be forgotten in a month," said a Blair loyalist. A Brownite MP countered: "This changes everything. It's one of those things that everyone will remember. If he has another health problem, he will be in real trouble."

It was a week dominated by the two main party leaders. While Mr Blair bounced back, travelling to Belfast and giving a confident performance at Prime Minister's Questions, the fortunes of Mr Duncan Smith went from bad to worse.

I couldn't help noting the parallels between the two leaders in recent weeks. They both went into their party's annual conference in trouble. Mr Blair turned it round by giving his party a message it did not really want to hear, but won its respect and quelled the doubts about his leadership. Mr Duncan Smith pandered to the Tory gallery with a hardline speech, won a stage-managed ovation but failed to silence his critics.

Both men are anxiously awaiting the results of investigations into their conduct, which could cost them their jobs. Lord Hutton will make his judgment on Mr Blair and his government in the new year. Sir Philip Mawer, the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, will report next month on allegations that Mr Duncan Smith paid his wife too much from public funds when she worked as his secretary.

The Tory leader's future may now be settled before Sir Philip reports. I do not know how many Tory MPs have written to Sir Michael Spicer, chairman of the 1922 Committee, requesting a vote of confidence in Mr Duncan Smith, but I am sure Sir Michael's file grew thicker in the past seven days. I would also predict that he receives more letters early next week. It may not be long before the number passes the threshold of 25 MPs - 15 per cent of the parliamentary party. One interesting thing is that the rebels have no idea how many like-minded colleagues have put pen to paper. "If people were telling me the truth, we would have had well over 25 already," one told me.

MPs are hardly guardians of the truth when leadership elections are in the air. In 1990, Margaret Thatcher's team calculated that she would win 220 votes to Mr Heseltine's 110, with about 40 abstentions. In fact, she got only 204 to Mr Heseltine's 152, four short of the necessary winning margin under the party rules at the time - 15 per cent of all those entitled to vote. She resigned three days later.

I am convinced there will be a vote of confidence, if only because after a while all the speculation becomes self-fulfilling. That was certainly the mood at Westminster on Wednesday, when I lost count of the various rumours.

The lather was whipped up by the plotters, helped by an ever-grateful media. But the crisis of confidence in the Tory leader is real enough. The party's policies will remain eclipsed until the cloud of uncertainty over Mr Duncan Smith is lifted. Indeed, this is part of the plot against him, and it is a pretty cowardly way of getting rid of a leader. But I think "the cowards in the shadows", as he calls them, will soon get their way.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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