OPINION: Well-timed Tory attack harms Blair's strategy

Some words strike fear into the hearts of political pollsters. Sleaze and arrogance are two of them, terms that defined the last Tory Government and are now being intermittently applied to New Labour. Tony Blair's poll-meister Philip Gould has been hearing a lot of another dread word lately, and that is 'trust', or the lack of it.

Yet the word that has informed Iain Duncan Smith's behaviour of late is 'bandwagon'. There is nothing the public hates more than a politician who jumps on every passing popular cause. Private polling during William Hague's leadership of the Conservative Party showed that this was one of the most damaging charges laid against him. Blair's polling was showing him the same thing, which is why he kept accusing Hague of it.

So when it came to dealing first with the tragic death of Dr David Kelly, then the Hutton Inquiry into its circumstances, the Tory leader was right to pause.

The damage to his leadership if he were seen to be making political capital out of the death of a respected civil servant would be inestimable. To be fair, IDS did not need to be told this. His instincts and his sense of decency told him.

When he did attack the Government's handling of the Kelly affair, he cleverly put the onus on the Prime Minister, asking him to apologise for his official spokesman's smearing of Dr Kelly as a 'Walter Mitty' fantasist.

The strategy here is to pin the blame not on the donkey but on the PM.

And it appears to be working. While IDS was attacked form all sides in the preceding weeks for not taking the Government on when it was under siege, a Mail on Sunday poll at the weekend - which put the Tories ahead for the first time in a decade - proved him right.

The attack delay was crucial for three reasons. First, so that no charges of bandwagon jumping could be laid at IDS's door. Secondly, it would have been indecent to invoke a political battle before Dr Kelly had even been buried. And thirdly, the delay meant John Prescott was running the show and was rather occupied with the good publicity surrounding his long-lost stepson.

The pictures of Cherie and Tony kissing their son Leo as they frolicked in the sea off Barbados on the day of Dr Kelly's funeral amounted to an unforeseen blow to the Blair strategy.

The Tories are taking a cautious approach. When Shadow Chancellor Michael Howard warned against complacency on Breakfast with Frost and said the improvements were not enough for them to win the next election, he was right. But it was also an attempt to silence those who have been trying to undermine IDS by causing problems between him and party chairman Theresa May.

While you might think the polls would give cause for celebration, however cautious, among Tory MPs, the opposite is true for a large faction. They fear IDS will do well enough at the next election to keep his job, but that he can never lead them back to power.

The Guardian reports that Number 10 has conceded it has lost the battle of words with the BBC and that it has only two months to recover its credibility. Accordingly, the Tories have two months to seize the initiative - and a quiet man will not achieve this.

IDS's supporters point to US president George W Bush as an example of a right-wing politician who is seen as nice but dim but has beaten all the odds to take the crown.

If only IDS had a bit more of that other right-wing American, Arnold Schwarzenegger, about him - hair, muscles, millions and a few hit movies - the Tories could be sure of Blair annihilation.

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