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The corridors of power...

During the recent political party conferences you met more people in Blackpool saying Labour could lose the next election than you did Tories in Bournemouth claiming their side could win it.

That may imply it does not much matter what Iain Duncan Smith says or however emolliently. He says it also throws a spotlight on the difficulties facing the Tories’ shadow chancellor, Michael Howard, in making an impact.

Howard is a curious figure. Few politicians would have lived down that ‘something of the night’ tag, courtesy of Ann Widdecombe, but Howard survives, the only representative on the Tory front bench of that gilded generation of Cambridge blues that included Michael Heseltine, John Gummer and Kenneth Clarke.

Yet Howard is in the hot spot because economic prosperity is a key determinant of electoral success and the auguries for the UK economy still look good.

Material conditions are not the only thing of course – the Tories lost in 1964 as the economy was booming just as Labour lost in 1951 amid the tightest of labour markets. Psephologists say it is not economic data itself so much as the perception of confidence and capacity in the way the government handles them, which is why the Tories lost the 1997 election on the back of Black Wednesday 1992.

Despite the positive tone of the Tory conference Howard has to play negative.

He has to convince the public Brown lacks competence. But Brown’s economic plans could come crashing down if there were an oil price crisis caused by an invasion of Iraq. How are electors going to punish Blair and Brown for an economic downturn caused by backing Bush? Surely not by voting for a Tory party that is even more slavish in its adherence to the Washington line?

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