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4 March 2002

IDS: rising from the ashes?

"He's done the Carlton Club, he's done the Monday Club," a shadow minister says. Edward Vaizey finds

By Edward Vaizey

Only the most sycophantic acolyte would try to compare Iain Duncan Smith to Tom Cruise. But one senior Tory has coined the name “Maverick” to honour his leader’s recent exploits. Maverick was the call sign of Tom Cruise’s most famous character, the devil-may-care, fly-by-night navy pilot who wins through in Top Gun. On one level, it is a simple nod towards IDS’s heritage as the son of a Battle of Britain fighter-pilot hero. On another level, it recognises the G-force manoeuvre that took the Tory party from championing hereditary privilege to proposing an (almost) fully elected House of Lords.

If you want to understand a politician, look at who he is listening to. With Blair, it was Mandelson and Gould. With Brown, it was Balls. With IDS, it is a range of appointments to the front bench and back rooms of Central Office, a phalanx of fogeys and a squad of scribblers who are slowly reinventing the Conservative Party.

At its summit sits Greg Clark, appointed just before the election to head the policy unit, who is now seen as central to the revival. Clark, a former adviser at the Department of Trade and Industry and policy wonk at the BBC, sits with his team in a garret at the top of Smith Square, the only decoration a newspaper obituary of Robert Nozick, thinking the thoughts that will turn the Tories around. He sees the leader every day and is utterly trusted with the direction of policy.

A whole range of names that previously spelled trouble for the Tory hierarchy have now been allowed to get hold of the odd lever and pull. As one Tory insider puts it: “Time will tell if these are astute appointments. They are certainly what I would describe as edgy.”

What he means is that some of these senior appointments are tried and untested. Though most have good Tory credentials, some have at times been critical of the direction of the party or pursued their own agenda within it. Mark MacGregor, the new chief executive, is a classic activist hard man. In the Nineties, he founded Conservative Way Forward, a movement designed to keep alive the right-wing flame in the Tory party and particularly in the constituencies after Margaret Thatcher’s downfall. Some said it was nothing more than a leadership vehicle for Michael Portillo. Now MacGregor, a successful businessman, has been appointed to bring new campaigning strategies into Tory HQ.

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Angie Bray, another right-winger and former Portillo supporter, and now a member of the Greater London Assembly, has been asked by IDS to be his conduit to London Tories, the first time Central Office has recognised that there has to be a separate strategy for London. Despite her robust credentials, Bray also works closely with Steven Norris and she is keen to see him stand again as the Tories’ candidate for mayor. Trish Morris, who for years has campaigned for more Tory women MPs, has been given the chance to put her ideas into practice as the new head of candidate selection. Dominic Cummings, barely 30, has left his position as the head of Business for Sterling to become the head of strategy.

A number of threads unite these new appointments. All recognise that the Conservative Party needs to change, radically. All have been talent-spotted. None of them could be described as “an IDS person”, for the simple reason that, before he went for the leadership, IDS had no peo-ple. IDS has sought to surround himself with people who will challenge, within reason, whatever the current Conservative consensus happens to be.

This approach extends to his front-bench team as well. As one senior shadow minister said to me: “Iain is much more approachable and easier to talk to about policy. You can now have a grown-up internal debate.” The contrast with Hague is marked: “We do not make policy up in 24 hours, then force everyone to stick to the line and rubbish anyone who does not. There is a less hurried and neurotic approach to policy.”

Nevertheless, the Tory party is still feeling its way. There remain tensions within the party, not so much over the general direction of policy, but over its emphasis. There is a faction that sees Section 28 and issues such as civil partnerships, the whole reaching-out strategy aborted by William Hague, as the touchstones of IDS’s commitment to radical change.

Others are more realistic and also feel mollified. The debate on civil partnerships, the proposal to allow same-sex and unmarried partnerships, is an example of what many Tories see as the more moderate approach that will bring about a shift in Conservative social policy at a manageable speed. While some diehards fought to stop a change of policy at all, the front-bench team of IDS, David Davis and Oliver Letwin were persuaded to change their stance by the vociferous lobbying of, among others, Alan Duncan, as well as John Bercow and Peta Buscombe in the Lords. Such a softly-softly approach typifies IDS’s view. As one shadow minister puts it: “He’s done the Carlton Club, he’s done the Monday Club, he genuinely wants more ethnic minority candidates and women candidates, and he has a more open attitude to sexual minorities. But he won’t make a song and dance about it.” An early indication of where IDS plans to draw the line will be his opposition, when the Adoption Bill comes up for debate, to Liberal Democrat amendments that propose adoption by unmarried and same-sex couples.

There is no doubt that the Tories genuinely believe not only that they must engage on the public services, but that they can win on them as well. Policy renewal is being approached seriously, with ideas being picked magpie-like from a variety of nests. One Tory official told me: “The debate is no longer about left and right. It is about centralisation against localisation. Issues such as Section 28 will fall by the wayside as we get to grips with our policies about public services. What we need to do is find ways to touch the issues that really matter to people. We need to come up with policies that will allow people to shape the services that they use.”

There is a new emphasis on the voluntary approach – providing people with options in the public services, without making them ideological or prescriptive. One idea picked up from Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida, encapsulates the change. Whereas IDS’s radical instincts make him favour the idea of education vouchers, the proposal will be reworked as voluntary education credits, allowing parents to opt out of their local school (with a “credit note” that they can offer to another school that takes their child) when standards fall. IDS even has his own version of “what matters is what works” – every speech he makes will refer to Conservatives “taking the world as it is”.

At the same time, there are dangers in this new tack. The recent indications that the government plans to raise taxes to fund the national health service have left the Tories stranded on a sandbank. Just at a moment when the Tories could be saying “We told you so, Labour always raises taxes”, they are stuck with a commitment to increase funding for public services but without a clear policy to show what their alternative to tax rises would be.

This being the Tory party, IDS does not have a job for life, and no guarantees even for this parliament. One MP has put down a private marker for there to have been a “significant improvement” in the polls by the middle of 2003. At present, they continue to flatline. Central Office is unconcerned. One observer comments: “I wouldn’t expect a shift in the polls so soon after a general election, especially one in which many were so disengaged.” A senior member of the shadow cabinet told me that he did not expect the polls to shift “for at least a year”. What has delighted the Tories is the recent ICM poll in the Guardian, which shows the Conservative Party putting on points for the first time on public services.

IDS has had a good few months. He has managed to get in under the radar. There is no nostalgia among MPs for the king across the water, Michael Portillo. Now for the hard part.

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