OPINION: Deserted Tory conference still speaks volumes

I confess to feeling very sorry for the Tory spin doctors in Blackpool.

They are all much nicer than the Labour lot, yet all they get is grief.

I arrived in Blackpool totally exhausted from my week in Bournemouth, but that did not stop me heading straight for the Imperial Hotel bar to pick up all the gossip on the latest threat to dump Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith. It was Saturday night, but, unbelievably, there was no one there except a few disgruntled BBC hacks - furious that their 'scoop' on IDS's wife had been spiked by their bosses. According to the official figures, three times as many people attended the Labour conference as went to the Tory bash. I don't believe them. It must be ten times that, a figure substantially boosted by PR people. Judging by the number of people who came up to me in Bournemouth to comment on this column, I reckon half our readership was there.

It was inevitable that the BBC story would emerge elsewhere, and so it did in nearly all the Sunday papers. For legal reasons we can't report exactly what the allegations were, but I can assure you that IDS would have been far better off letting the BBC run its story, because, in my view, it was not very damaging. What was much worse for IDS were the reports that this was all part of a plot by Tories to get rid of their hapless leader.

The result of all this was that the first two days of conference were dominated by stories about a leadership crisis. Loyal Tories claim that this was just like the Labour conference, but they are wrong. If Labour dumped Blair they would have Brown to replace him. The Conservative Party has no one. The problem with the Tories isn't just that they have a useless leader who, as The Sun so succinctly put it, is 'as effective as a mosquito biting an elephant', it is that there is no one else who could do a better job. The Tories might as well stick with IDS and try to sort out their policies. To be fair to the Conservatives, they have come up with some very radical ideas, but in the one area that really matters - the economy - they have spectacularly failed to make their mark. The problem, as usual, is tax.

IDS wants to cut it lots and lots, but his Shadow Chancellor, sensibly, wants to be a little more cautious. The same thing happened to Labour.

Blair wanted to make a promise not to raise any taxes, but Brown only wanted to make the pledge on income tax. If Brown had lost that battle, there would have been no extra cash for schools and hospitals - and Blair would be on his way out by now.

The only reason Labour was believed on tax was because it promised not to spend any more than the Tories would for the first two years. The Conservatives made a big mistake this week in promising to raise pensions the same day IDS said he wanted to cut tax. No one believes it can be done. Worse, IDS says one thing on tax and Michael Howard says another. This is political suicide.

As I told David Willetts on Sunday: 'On tax you all have to be singing from the same song sheet. There has to be a formulation of words and everyone, including the leader, has to stick to it. It may sound boring and tedious, but it works.' The Shadow Works and Pensions Minister nodded vigorously.

Anyone who has attended all three party conferences, as I have, will tell you the same thing. Labour will win the next election easily, and the Tories will be fighting for second place. I know this is true because not one person came up to me in Blackpool to slag off this column. The PR industry stayed away not because Blackpool stinks, but because they, too, know that IDS has no chance of becoming PM.

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