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 Are Already Talking about the Next Leader

By Ashley, Jackie | New Statesman (1996), December 10, 2001 | Go to article overview

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 Are Already Talking about the Next Leader


Ashley, Jackie, New Statesman (1996)


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, lain 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 percent. 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.

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.

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. …

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