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Conservatives do about-face

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LONDON — After years of blasting off at high taxes, crime and illegal immigrants, Britain's opposition Conservative Party is quietly tearing up its political doctrine in a bid to bounce back from two crushing election defeats.

Under the command of ex-army officer Iain Duncan Smith, the party best known for championing a right-wing agenda of law and order and tax cuts has launched a surprise raid on the political center ground, attempting to outflank Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The maneuver — critics call it a brazen retreat from the legacy of Margaret Thatcher — could leave Blair wrong-footed.

Duncan Smith, a relatively unknown right-winger who took over after the Conservatives fell in a second straight drubbing last year, showed little sign at the time of charting a radical new course for his party.

But in a few days this month his leadership team has turned conventional Westminster wisdom on its head.

First his home affairs spokesman, Oliver Letwin, trampled on a cornerstone of Conservative philosophy when he called for new policies on crime focusing less on tough prison sentences for offenders and more on promoting a "neighborly society."

The party that accused Blair of letting a flood of "bogus asylum seekers" into Britain then lobbied his government successfully to stop it deporting asylum seekers to Zimbabwe.

Last week Duncan Smith announced proposals for a radical overhaul of the House of Lords to turn the former bastion of hereditary Conservative peers into a mainly elected chamber.

That left Blair's own plans for a largely appointed upper house looking timid, unimaginative and undemocratic. "When Labor loses its place as the party of democracy to the Conservatives, it's time for Labor to bow its head in shame," Jonathan Freedland, political commentator of the Guardian newspaper, said.

Finance spokesman Michael Howard, sensing a shift in public mood, has quietly dropped calls for lower taxes to focus instead on more efficient spending on public services.

And another leading Conservative, John Bercow, has called on the party to embrace gay rights, saying it must show Britons it wants "to govern Britain as she is, not Britain as she was."

Suddenly the party many commentators thought was in terminal decline has begun to find a new voice.

"It could be that Duncan Smith is starting to lead from the front, shed ancient dogmas and reposition his party's place in the political firmament," analyst Peter Kellner said.

"Across a range of issues, Blair and his ministers are vulnerable to a flanking move from a party that is prepared to take democracy and liberty seriously," Kellner added.

Political journalists from left and right alike agree there are signs of recovery in the party which ruled Britain for 18 years before crashing to landslide defeats in 1997 and 2001.

They contrast Conservatives' search for new answers with Labour's reliance on focus groups and shadowy political units.

Dennis Kavanagh, professor of politics at Liverpool University, said Duncan Smith's step was closing the ideological gap with Blair's Labour Party.

That could switch critical public attention onto Labour's own performance in government, particularly its patchy handling of the country's run-down public services.

"It means Labour will no longer be running against the Conservatives (in the next election)," he said. "It will be running on its own record of health and transport."

Duncan Smith's quiet revolution has its limits. Commentators say it will take time before he can produce a coherent overall philosophy to match his new messages on crime, tax and services.

"They don't yet have alternative policies," said John Curtice, politics professor at Strathclyde University. "If and when they do, they potentially become serious opposition."