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10 December 2001

The voice that can only croak

He ought to be full of energy and brimming with ideas. But Iain Duncan Smith is neither, and Tories

By Jackie Ashley

It is one of the great mysteries of modern British politics. No, this is not about whether there was a succession deal – or not – between Blair and Brown. Nor is it about who bounced whom in the battle over taxing and spending. This story is about a sweet. Yes, a sweet. We don’t know if it is a toffee or a cough sweet. But if the Tories’ new leader, Iain Duncan Smith, doesn’t make it through to the next general election as leader of the opposition, then we must be clear. It started with the sweet.

Poor IDS is presumably unaware that the entire press gallery – or as much of it as can see him – spends the first few minutes of Prime Minister’s Questions every week utterly transfixed by his sweetie. A couple of minutes before he stands up to cross-question Tony Blair, he pulls it out of a trouser pocket and pops it in. He sucks. He chews. His brow furrows. His jaw pumps. Then, finally, after some effort, he swallows it and stands up and speaks. And his voice sounds just as bad as ever, a squeaking croak of a voice. We hacks had assumed it was a throat sweet, but no cold or throat infection goes on this long. We think it is nerves. We think IDS is a bit scared of TB, or maybe just of finding himself leader of the Conservative Party. The entire press gallery is wondering whether he can do it.

To judge from the glum faces on the benches behind him, we aren’t the only ones. He has barely scored once in weeks against a government that ought to be easy to embarrass. Here they are, at sixes and sevens over the future of the NHS, engaged in some kind of fratricidal war over the euro, still carrying Jo Moore and overseeing the first economic downturn since new Labour came to power.

Who thinks the rail system is going to get better any time soon? Who will give short odds on the Chancellor, the Prime Minister, the Health Secretary and their numerous gabby advisers coming to an agreement on how to reform the health service? Who thinks their proposed “reform” of the Lords is anything other than cynical? Who thinks the Home Secretary’s anti-terrorism measures deserve to get through parliament without being mauled?

And yet, before the last election, the Tories’ standing in the polls hovered between 26 and 29 per cent; their standing is currently – yes – between 26 and 29 per cent. IDS’s latest personal poll rating (MORI’s for the Times in November) puts him at 24 per cent – a point below William Hague’s rating just before the June election. There has been no Tory turnaround.

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Duncan Smith has had one huge alibi. The 11 September attacks on New York and Washington had the effect (presumably not intended by al-Qaeda) of making elected leaders who stood up to terrorists popular. Previously a barely legitimate dunce-president, George W Bush now enjoys approval ratings of which other, earlier, greater presidents could only dream. Events haven’t had quite the same effect on Tony Blair. Most of us had already decided what we thought of him: his behaviour after the twin towers attacks simply confirmed our existing views. Nevertheless, it is very hard for a right-wing opposition leader to find ways to attack someone who portrays himself not only as a war leader, but as a pro-Washington war leader.

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IDS, himself in Washington last week, made it clear that he still hopes to find a chink of daylight between Blair and Bush – perhaps over Iraq, if the US decides to follow Afghanistan with a new war on Saddam Hussein. Blair would find that difficult to handle, and might suddenly discover that he isn’t Dubbya’s best friend any more. The trouble for IDS is that hanging around and mouthing loyal things about the Prime Minister while hoping for a diplomatic catastrophe isn’t very dignified.

More to the point, most voters are watching the domestic front as much as the war, and it is here that Duncan Smith has failed to hit home at all.

It is clearly a question of leadership, not just a Tory question. As a group, the Conservatives have done some fairly clever things recently. Michael Howard ditched the idea that they should cut taxes before they improve services, thus putting the party at long last on the same side of the argument as most voters. Some of their more energetic people, such as Liam Fox, have been travelling the world looking at alternative methods of running and funding public services. If Blair and Brown have failed by 2004, these ideas may begin to look attractive. Even poor old Oliver Letwin, whose big mouth got him into such trouble over the size of Tory tax cuts during the last election campaign, has been developing a more intelligent, libertarian home affairs agenda than the Tories have had for some time.

No, the problem is the leader. Duncan Smith might have approved and even formally ordered these changes. But he is making no mark himself. In a ruthlessly presidential political system, he is a nice enough, hard-working, honest, uncharismatic, rather shy and profoundly old-fashioned man. As one of those who backed him for the leadership ruefully admitted to me last week, he’s not exactly a man for the 21st century, is he?

In an interview in last week’s New Statesman, the aforementioned Oliver Letwin, now shadow home secretary, went all tongue-tied and mumbly when asked about Duncan Smith’s future, and won himself a few adverse headlines as a result. But what he said – or wouldn’t say about the likelihood of a Tory victory at the next election – is characteristic of what happens these days when two or three Tories are gathered together. They seem to shrug off the subject of IDS and move swiftly on to who eventually should replace him.

My impression is that Michael Howard, whose reinvention is the fiscal equivalent to Michael Portillo’s on social policy, is where the fast money is going. Ken Clarke, interestingly, hasn’t disappeared from politics after all. Neither has Portillo, quite. But my other impression is that most Tories want to leave the matter until the euro referendum is over and . . . er, lost. They are so drowned in defeatism that they think they might as well leave IDS to his historic role as the leader who took them into a failed referendum campaign. After that – or if it turns out that the referendum is not going to happen – expect to see the knives.

These are still early days. The only by-election so far has been in a relatively safe Labour seat. There will doubtless be more NHS crises and further dreadful rail problems before another 12 months are over. And, yes, all right, IDS could yet turn his leadership around and start to win converts. The trouble is, he has already left it very late. As Neil Kinnock and William Hague discovered, the electorate tends to take an early, brutal view of political leaders which is then very hard to shift.

Duncan Smith enthusiasts, a fairly select society, might take comfort in the knowledge that most people have absolutely no view of him at all. But those who do are not mightily impressed. He doesn’t seem full of energy or brimming with ideas. If he really wanted to become prime minister and topple Blair at all costs, he would be taking voice coaching; learning how to speak well in public; summoning endless political thinkers on the right for new ideas; going around the country provoking argument; hauling in for a tongue-lashing those members of the shadow cabinet who have not set the world alight; and demanding constant attention from the media.

IDS isn’t, so far as I can tell, doing any of those things. He is meandering about, being earnest and polite and looking desperately unhappy.

There is an answer to his problem. But sucking on those sweeties isn’t it.