Britain's Conservative Party Continues Slide. (Political Notebook)

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Here in the United Kingdom the Conservative Party is a pale shadow of what it was when led by Margaret Thatcher. Three leaders after the Iron Lady, as the second term of Labour's Tony Blair progresses, there is little about which the Conservatives feel confident.

Despite the fact that Blair no longer is popular--his backing of George W. Bush on Iraq isn't appreciated here and Britons still are not convinced the Labour government can improve public services--Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith once again has mired himself in internal party squabbling.

This time the row isn't about Britain's place in Europe, which is the perennial source of dispute within the party, but involves Smith's credibility as leader. December has been a cruel month for him. In October, things looked like they might be coming together when his party's annual conference went well, prompting optimism in Conservative ranks. To add to that, Blair and his wife, Cherie, were embroiled in a delicious embarrassment involving allegations of squalid corruption, odd friendships with crackpots and New Age therapies.

With the Blairs opened to the sharp ridicule of the British tabloid press--even the staid broadsheets piled in--Smith looked to be sitting pretty and well-positioned to take advantage this winter. But as with the Labour Party in the 1980s, so with the Conservatives now: When things are going badly for their opponents the party never seems able to shake off party infighting and to build credibility. Conservatives still are warring over whether homosexual couples should be allowed to adopt children.

On top of that, Smith has added to confusion by mixing his messages on what voters could expect from the Conservatives when it comes to taxes and government spending. Would the party in government give overriding priority to lower taxes or better public services?

Until shortly before Christmas the party's message was clear: Public services would be given priority. Part of the success of the Conservatives' conference in October rested upon the clear message it sent on the issue of public services. At the conference, party leaders were full of ideas about how to cut crime, assist the elderly and deliver improved schools and hospitals. Then, on the Sunday before Christmas, Smith shifted gears, announcing that the Conservatives are the party of lower taxes. Few believe the party can deliver on both pledges--as Ross Perot might say, "Follow the math"

But Smith insists a future Conservative government could both slash taxes and improve public services. Never mind that even his supporters doubt it is possible for Britain to have its cake and eat it, too. …