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Tory Leader Is Given the Boot After Two Years

Britain's Conservatives oust Iain Duncan Smith for failing to make inroads against Blair.

October 30, 2003|William Wallace | Special to The Times

LONDON — Britain's Conservatives kicked out their fourth party leader in a little more than a decade Wednesday, voting to dismiss Iain Duncan Smith after two years in the job.

The 49-year-old Duncan Smith never had a chance to fight a general election against Prime Minister Tony Blair. Widely derided as a woeful and wooden politician, he was in effect fired in a closed-door vote by 165 Tory members of Parliament unhappy at his failure to make inroads against the prime minister. Duncan Smith was ousted in a 90-75 vote.

That verdict was narrower than expected but reflected the party's desperation to find a way to dislodge Blair. The Labor leader has won two successive majorities and appears headed for another in two years, despite grave doubts among voters about his decision to take Britain to war in Iraq and widespread grumbling about his failure to fix the country's shaky public services.

Duncan Smith could never capitalize on those wounds. Six years into the Blair era, at a time when support for governments traditionally begins to wane, the Tories remain static in the polls. Britain's frequent governing party in the last two centuries holds the support of about one-third of the electorate. But under Duncan Smith's chaotic managerial style and image as a bumbler, it appeared doomed to the exile of opposition.

Party rules prohibit Duncan Smith from running to replace himself.

"The parliamentary party has spoken, and I will stand down as leader when a successor has been chosen," he said upon emerging from the backrooms of Conservative Party headquarters in London, where the vote was held. In an emotional speech earlier in the day, he had implored the MPs to rally to his leadership, arguing that there was no "white knight" on offer to save the party.

There was an early rush Wednesday night to rally around Michael Howard, 62, a Cabinet minister in the last Tory government, under John Major. Howard ran last in a previous bid for leader and is not known for a warm personality.

Howard said little about his ambitions Wednesday night, sticking to a script that paid tribute to Duncan Smith. "Iain has shown fantastic courage and dignity," was all Howard said. "My thoughts are with him tonight."

Yet there were signs that the party legislators were trying to agree on a single candidate to present to the wider party membership, thereby avoiding a long and divisive leadership race. David Davis, touted as a likely contender, swiftly announced that he would not run, endorsing Howard instead. The first ballot is scheduled for Nov. 11.

But some observers contend that, barring an economic meltdown in Britain, there is little any Tory leader can do to defeat Labor until Blair quits politics.

"People may not trust Blair anymore, but, like Margaret Thatcher, they still respect him," says Simon Walters, author of "Tory Wars," which described the last Conservative leadership crisis, which chased William Hague from the post in 2001. "And the Conservatives are remarkably short of talent. They have nobody, I mean nobody at all, who can stand toe-to-toe with Blair."

Howard will be sure to point to claims he has held his own in House of Commons debates with Gordon Brown, Labor's intellectually fearsome chancellor of the exchequer.

In contrast, Duncan Smith's awkward manner was never a match for Blair's fluent, combative politics.

Although he succeeded in papering over the Tories' endemic divisions over Britain's place in Europe, Duncan Smith's public persona swung from the ineffectual to the outrageous.

In September, he appalled many even within his own ranks with a mean-spirited speech to the annual Tory conference during which he suggested that Liberal Democratic leader Charles Kennedy had a drinking problem.

But his main shortcoming in the eyes of many Tories was his failure to revive the party's image so it could win votes in the political center.

"There are 6 million people out there who used to vote Conservative that don't now," says Iain Dale, the owner of a political bookshop near Parliament at Westminster who will be a Tory candidate in the next election.

"And we have to go after them.

"But whether you are going to do that by going back to someone like Michael Howard, I don't know."

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Possible successors

Here are some of the favorites to replace ousted Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith.

* Michael Howard: A Cabinet minister in the previous Conservative government, Howard, 62, is emerging as a front-runner. Party supporters believe Howard, an old-style politician, would be more robust in holding Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair to account on several issues.

* Kenneth Clarke: The most popular Conservative with the public, Clarke, 63, is probably stymied by his enthusiastic pro-Europeanism in a party increasingly opposed to the effort. He served as health secretary, home secretary and finance minister between 1988 and 1997.

* Michael Portillo: Championed by Conservative modernizers, the former defense secretary, analysts say, represents the party's best chance of electoral revival. The 50-year-old's inclusive message -- urging the party to welcome ethnic minorities and gays -- has not resonated well with an aging rank and file.

Source: Reuters

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