- The Washington Times - Monday, September 10, 2001

LONDON Britain's Conservative Party moves toward the declaration of a new leader on Wednesday with party insiders frustrated that neither of the two remaining candidates has shown himself likely to seriously challenge Prime Minister Tony Blair in the next general election.
Running with the backing of the party's conservative wing and of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Iain Duncan Smith is the overwhelming favorite to win the mail ballot of party members, but neither he nor former Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke has attracted much enthusiasm outside party circles.
The Conservatives or Tories have been without a leader since William Hague stepped down a day after Labor secured a landslide victory in the June 7 general election.
Mr. Hague's campaign was criticized as being too focused on the single European currency as well as taxes, crime and asylum when the public was more concerned about the declining quality of health care and education. Yet Mr. Clarke and Mr. Duncan Smith seem to be making the same mistake.
By turning the leadership contest into an argument over Britain's place in Europe and whether to adopt the euro, they have further divided an already dispirited party, analysts say.
"The Conservative Party seems intent on suicide," said George Jones, a political commentator and professor of politics at the London School of Economics. The euro is "not an issue for the British public, and yet the election has been fought largely around it."
The latest poll for the Sunday Times showed that 47 percent of the 318,000 party members who are voting by a postal ballot support Mr. Duncan Smith, compared with 33 percent for Mr. Clarke. Since some three-quarters of the members had already mailed their ballots by Thursday, that outcome is unlikely to change. All ballots must be mailed by Tuesday, and the result will be announced Wednesday afternoon in London.
The pro-euro Mr. Clarke also lost the last leadership election to Mr. Hague in 1997 because people thought he wouldn't be able to unite a party that is highly skeptical of closer integration with Europe. Mr. Duncan Smith opposes use of the euro and closer ties to the European Union in principle.
It's not just infighting that presents a challenge to the Conservatives. The party is seen as older and unrepresentative of the country's 40 million voters. To provide a viable alternative to Labor, the Conservatives need to move closer to the center, said Anthony King, a professor of government at Essex University.
Mr. King said they need to follow the example of Labor in the 1980s and reinvent themselves so as to appeal to a wider public, particularly the young.
Yet neither candidate is seen as able to do this. Mr. Duncan Smith, who entered Parliament in 1992 as the party's little-known spokesman on defense issues, knows the party is in trouble but doesn't give "any indication of understanding how much," Mr. King said. "He's unlikely to leave the party much better off than he's found it."
Mr. Duncan Smith acknowledges in a letter posted on his official Web site that the Tories need to "accept the need for change," and that "reconnecting" the party with the public is its greatest challenge. But he has offered no credible program for doing so.
Nor has his more charismatic rival, who has relied largely on his personality to bring in votes. Mr. Jones said Mr. Clarke, who has spent 18 years in government including 11 years as a minister to Mrs. Thatcher, is seen as "yesterday's man."
Michael Portillo, the candidate who was seen as having the best chance of uniting the party, has already been eliminated in an earlier round of the leadership contest.
Both surviving candidates say they will address education and health care and rid the party of racist elements at issue after an aide to Mr. Duncan Smith was linked to an anti-immigration extremist party. Both have said they'll appoint people who disagree with them on the euro if elected.
But neither is seen as a figure who could reverse the party's fortunes in the manner of Neil Kinnock, who became Labor's leader after an election defeat in 1983 and persuaded the party to abandon losing policies such as unilateral disarmament. While Mr. Kinnock lost the 1992 election, he transformed the party, opening the way for Mr. Blair's later victory.
Mr. Blair, probably the most conservative leader that Labor has ever had, has presented the Conservatives with "the most difficult target to hit that it's had in 100 years," Mr. King said.


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