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Tories' chief vows to take on Blair

BLACKPOOL, England -- The embattled leader of Britain's main opposition Conservative Party attacked Prime Minister Tony Blair as a liar yesterday, drawing cheers from a party convention that had been rife with rumors of a mutiny against him.

"Get on board or get out of our way," said Iain Duncan Smith, vowing to fight on as leader despite rumors of a plot to oust him.

His speech went down well with grass-roots members of the party at the annual convention in northern England. But the real test of whether he has silenced dissent over his lackluster leadership style and failure to turn around his party's sagging popularity, will come next week when lawmakers return from recess.

According to unconfirmed reports, Duncan Smith's critics in the House of Commons are trying to drum up support for a vote of no confidence in him.

"The message works with the people in the hall," said former Cabinet minister John Redwood. "We will have to see whether it works with the people outside the hall."

The Conservatives -- the party of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher -- were swept from power by Blair's Labor Party in 1997. They lost again in 2001, also by a landslide. Duncan Smith took over two years ago, but the party still has not recovered its popularity.

In his conference address, Duncan Smith accused the government of being "corrupt, mendacious, and fraudulent," and said its treatment of weapons adviser David Kelly was the "prime minister's blackest act."

Kelly apparently killed himself after he was identified as the possible source of a news report that accused Blair's office of exaggerating the threat from Iraqi weapons to bolster support for the war.

"Immediately after Dr. Kelly's death, Tony Blair said he'd had nothing to do with his public naming. That was a lie," Duncan Smith said to roars of approval in the Victorian conference hall.

"Tony Blair chaired the meetings that made the fatal decisions. He is responsible. He should do the decent thing and he should resign."

Speaking on condition of anonymity, party spokesmen backed away from Duncan Smith's claim. Instead, they said Blair was involved in various consultations on identifying Kelly, and didn't veto the idea.

Blair's office had no comment, saying it would wait to hear from Lord Hutton, a judge leading an inquiry into Kelly's death. His report is due out later this year.

Throughout the four-day conference, Duncan Smith has been dogged by rumors of a coup attempt.

Although backing their leader in public, dissenting lawmakers say the "quiet man," as Duncan Smith styled himself in last year's conference speech, is not strong enough to lead them against Blair's government.

Some are angry that the Conservatives, who wholeheartedly backed the war in Iraq, have failed to capitalize on Blair's current slump in popularity.

But Duncan Smith said he was determined to lead the Conservatives to victory. "I won't allow anything or anyone to get in my way," he said in an hourlong speech punctuated by 19 standing ovations.

Thatcher, whose public appearances have been limited by poor health, did not attend this year's party conference. Duncan Smith invoked her mystique by saying a new batch of party policies was "the most radical policy agenda of any party aspiring to government since 1979," the first of Thatcher's 11 years in power.

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