Politics: In the Land of the Leaderless, the Tory Powerbrokers Will Crown the King ; Politics with No Obvious Successor to Iain Duncan Smith, Power Resides with Those Behind the Scenes

By McSmith, Andy | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), October 26, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Politics: In the Land of the Leaderless, the Tory Powerbrokers Will Crown the King ; Politics with No Obvious Successor to Iain Duncan Smith, Power Resides with Those Behind the Scenes


McSmith, Andy, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


It is a sign of the dire state of the Conservative Party that it is not even as good at disloyalty as it used to be.

All Conservative leaders, in fact all party leaders, have had their big- name rivals causing them grief, operating either on the inside or the outside. William Hague had Michael Portillo in his Shadow Cabinet and Ken Clarke out of it. John Major had Mr Portillo, again, and John Redwood; Margaret Thatcher had Sir Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine; Ted Heath had Margaret Thatcher and Enoch Powell, and so on back into history.

But poor Iain Duncan Smith is apparently fated to go down to ignominious defeat without even facing a decent-sized enemy. When The Times suggested that Mr Clarke might be preparing a leadership bid, he was seen punching the newspaper and declaiming that Mr Duncan Smith's troubles were nothing to do with him.

Mr Portillo, the arch-plotter, has also kept well out of it. Mr Duncan Smith's predecessor, William Hague, and his probable successor, Michael Howard, have been scrupulously loyal. John Major's intervention yesterday is not something Mr Duncan Smith could complain about. As two loyal shadow ministers complained in a letter to yesterday's Daily Telegraph, he is being brought down by people who "hide in the shadows and have no alternative leader".

But just as the plotters have no big-name leader, those who want everything to settle down so that the party stops tearing itself apart are also feeling the lack of big beasts. One MP was privately lamenting that there is no one left like Willie Whitelaw, Margaret Thatcher's deputy in the 1980s, whose seniority and political background on the Tory left gave him the authority to impose discipline and self-restraint on the party.

This absence of big beasts will be felt again if Iain Duncan Smith is ousted in the coming week. Many MPs and activists are appalled by the prospect of a leadership election, which could absorb the party's energies for weeks. The way to avoid this would be for a Whitelaw figure to step in and broker a deal under which all but one of the potential candidates stand aside, and Mr Duncan Smith's successor is installed by acclamation.

Some MPs are saying that a deal is possible, but no one thinks it is likely, because there is no one of sufficient stature to act as honest broker, and because there is too much distrust between the potential contenders.

Mr Clarke is the Tory most non-Tories think would make the best leader, and there is no real doubt that he would accept the job if it was offered to him by acclamation. However, his enthusiasm for Europe and his opposition to the Iraq war make him unacceptable to too many Tories.

Michael Howard has emerged as Mr Duncan Smith's most probable successor, not least because of the care he has taken to avoid any semblance of disloyalty during the current crisis. Those people who know him well say that he is not keen to be embroiled in a leadership election either, though he would be unlikely to refuse the leadership if it were offered on a plate.

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