Published: 00:00, 03 March 2003
CONSERVATIVE Party leader Iain Duncan Smith has shrugged off criticisms of his leadership during a visit to Kent but conceded the party may not make huge gains in the forthcoming local elections.
Mr Duncan Smith, who was in Kent for the enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury and addressed local Tory activists in Folkestone, dismissed the furore caused by his sacking of a chief aide.
Asked about the party’s prospects at the local elections, which some believe will have a crucial bearing on his future as leader, he said:“The problem we have is that we are the incumbents in a number of councils.
"As a result of huge successes four years ago, when we had one of our best election results, we are actually defending a lot of councils, which changes the complexion of things a great deal."
In a clear signal the party intends to heap the blame on the Government for large council tax increases, he accused Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott of “gerrymandering” votes by giving Labour councils more cash.
“One of our problems is that John Prescott has, in one of the most political moves that I can ever recall, deliberately re-ordered the local government grant settlement.”
“The result is that we are being ill-served by this Government. So we are going to be running a campaign called “Give us our money back John.”
"This is a deliberate attempt to shore up Labour councils and a deliberate attempt to gerrymander votes. It is outrageous.”
He denied that infighting within his ranks was damaging the party’s credibility and election fortunes. He commented: “If you look at it carefully, there is not infighting in the Conservative party. What we have got is a few people who have over the last few weeks engaged in a story about making changes at Central Office. I do not resile one jot. I am the leader of the Conservative party and I am determined to lead it and we move on.”
On asylum, he pledged that a future Conservative government would “not mess about” and would be firm about setting quotas and allowing in only those who were genuine asylum seekers.
“We cannot just behave as if this is any old problem. The Government’s failure over this is a major problem.”
Meanwhile, David Davis, shadow deputy Prime Minister, said during a visit to Kent County Council that he had no intention of challenging Mr Duncan Smith for the job of leader during a visit to Kent.
He stressed: “I am not going to challenge Ian. I do not want to see him challenged and I want to see him fight the next election.”