It was the sound of uncontrollable sobbing that stopped me as I walked down the long corridor towards William Hague’s office in the early hours of 8 June. As the election results came in, word was spreading that Hague was ready to resign and that nothing would stop him.
The hunched figure was silhouetted against the window, a bank of television cameras outside turning the night into strange half-day. “Someone’s got to stop him,” the frontbencher cried. “He’s the best leader we could ever have. William’s the only one who can save us.”
I looked at him unbelievingly. Only three days before, he had phoned a senior political editor and told him that the shadow cabinet had lost faith in Hague’s leadership. Hague would be challenged and ousted as leader within the first month or, at best, the first year after the election.
So I was not surprised that the new Conservative Party chairman, David Davis, used his speech to this year’s Blackpool conference to warn off the plotters and demand total loyalty to the new leader. Except that some of us could remember the antics of the Gang of Four – Davis, Eric Forth, David Maclean and Owen Paterson – during the last parliament. As one Hague supporter said: “Lectures from David Davis to backbenchers about loyalty are about as believable as Myra Hindley lecturing on childcare.”
The charitable interpretation is that, having witnessed a party almost destroyed by division, Davis has realised there is no future for any Tories unless they can unite around their leader. Alas, and almost incredibly, the question most asked in the bars of Blackpool about Iain Duncan Smith was not so much “will he last?” as “how long will he last?”.
This is a party made bitter and unforgiving by defeat. It faces a Labour leader whom the members (sometimes grudgingly) admire, a Prime Minister who is performing the role of war leader like a true Tory. Some believe he has out-Thatchered Margaret Thatcher on the international stage. Some talked at the conference of not being able to imagine a time when the Conservatives would return to power.
“Winning teams have winning attributes and losing teams have losing attributes,” one senior Tory said. “And this lot look like a bunch of losers. It will be a generation before we get back into Downing Street.” So the rumblings among the members at Blackpool were that, unless Duncan Smith could start to make real improvements in the party’s poll ratings, he would not and should not survive as leader until the next election. And when people are freely discussing their leader’s shelf-life, and the subversives are impossible to quell, the climate is perfect for “the harbourers”.
These are the remarkable number of people who harbour ambitions to be Tory leader. It used to be the case that a political career was considered satisfactory if it led to high office. Now it’s a case of: “Home Secretary? Too unglamorous. Secretary of State for Education? Woman’s work.” Like kids in the playground who dream of being David Beckham, but don’t want to be just Teddy Sheringham, the harbourers only want to be leader.
The delicious irony is that, according to the punters, the man most likely to succeed IDS is the man who has been put in charge of his protection – David Davis.
Davis’s style varies greatly from that of the former chairman, Michael Ancram. Whereas Ancram was an instinctive conciliator – a “better have them inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in” man – Davis is more of a “piss all over them” sort. He is a bruiser who will give no quarter.
He has made an impressive beginning. Privately, he has vowed to crush the dissenters and the plotters, especially the Portillistas, who are still seen as the main threat to party stability. Their leader is now out of the frame, but they have regrouped around Francis Maude, Archie Norman and David Willetts. Although none of these men possesses the big-beast qualities of Michael Portillo, they are all – however ludicrous the thought of Maude as Prime Minister may be – harbourers, watching and waiting.
In the coming months, we shall see whether they use their newly formed think-tank as a force for debate and policy development or as an ideological stick with which to beat the new leadership and advance the Portillistas’ agenda.
There are plenty of other harbourers, but they are not all malign. Someone once raised Andrew Lansley’s hopes by telling him that he had “the face of a prime minister”, but he is not a plotter. It is said that Theresa May harbours ambitions, too. Her sights were raised when she overheard a conversation in which a senior Tory said: “That Theresa May is statuesque.” She thought he had said “Thatcheresque”. Out of such small misunderstandings great ambitions grow.
When Hague addressed the party faithful last Tuesday, with his trademark blend of humour and dignity, he urged them to rally around their new leader, a good and decent man. What he knew in his heart is that the party, in its current mood, has as much intention of remaining faithful to any one man as Lucrezia Borgia.
But I think many have underestimated Duncan Smith, that he will grow in stature, and grow quickly – and that his first months will not be blighted by the mistakes Hague and his advisers made.
Amanda Platell was press secretary to William Hague. She begins a media column for the New Statesman next week