Iain Duncan Smith has been lucky: the Conservative Party, unlucky. Mr Duncan Smith was doubly fortunate, in the way that the local election results were presented and in the opponents who broke cover after the polls closed. On the face of it, 545 additional council seats sounds a good result, especially as it was well in excess of most predictions. From a Tory point of view, however, the seat gains were a snare and a delusion. They provide no grounds for optimism as to the party's prospects in a general election. There, the crucial indicator is the percentage of the vote, and the Tories won only 34 per cent.
The psephologist Professor Tony King has warned the Tories that the outcome is a matter for relief, not joy. He is wrong. There are no grounds for relief. Thirty-four per cent - four points lower than Mr Hague's score in 2000 - was a terrible mid-term result. An opposition with any hope of winning the next election ought to have been up around 45 per cent. At 34 per cent, the Tories are in serious danger of losing more ground, especially as the Liberals reached 30 per cent, their best ever result, and made further gains along the M3 corridor. Tory MPs who are worried about a Liberal challenge have every reason to stay worried.
Yet that is not how the result was spun. Some of the blame for this must go to Crispin Blunt. Though Mr Blunt is a courageous fellow, he is also over-encouragingly named: a blunt instrument, but without much instrumentality. A former soldier, he was the sort of young officer who would be better at gallantry awards than at strategy. The trouble is, however, that the award would be posthumous. On Thursday night, he charged straight at the machine- guns. Nobody followed him, and he got shot. But Mr Blunt was only saying in public what at least two-thirds of his parliamentary colleagues believe in private.
His premature intervention was not assisted by David Mellor's agreement. A shallow, selfish creature, Mr Mellor used the Tory party when it suited him and occasionally revisits it when he wants some cheap publicity. I doubt if there is a single Tory MP who believes that Mr Mellor has any moral or intellectual credentials to comment on Tory party matters.
Mr Mellor is the sort of critic whom an embattled Tory leader would pray for, especially when abetted by the BBC. The BBC approached the elections much as it did the Iraq war. Then, it had hoped to gloat over Anglo-American reverses; last Thursday, it was salivating at the thought of bad news for the Tories. So blatant was the BBC's partisanship, so shallow its analysis, that it did not even realise that it was right. The Tories were in trouble. A more dispassionate, percentage-based approach would have reached that conclusion. Instead, as the seat gains which the BBC had hoped would not occur did materialise, its commentators were forced into graceless retreats.
It was a bad night for the Tories. It will be a still worse one if it enables IDS to retain the leadership. In 2001, there were two good reasons for supporting Mr Duncan Smith: he was neither Kenneth Clarke nor Michael Portillo. Mr Portillo is an interesting, highly intelligent man on a voyage of self-discovery. This has involved train trips through Europe, television programmes on Wagner and stints as a shelf-stacker in a supermarket. Fascinating stuff, but he could not be allowed to use the leadership as another chapter in his Bildungsroman. Before you take that job, you have to know who you are and what you believe.
Not that Ken Clarke could ever be accused of …