Magazine article The Spectator

Power to the People

Magazine article The Spectator

Power to the People

Article excerpt

THE Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition looks intently at me across the spartan sitting-room of his constituency home in Chingford. We are talking, nine months into his unexpected leadership, about what he must do to win.

'I know what my party is. The trouble is, the British people came to see us as something else. One of the great success stories of modern politics was the way in which the leftwing press, including too often the broadcast media, led by the Labour party, succeeded in painting and caricaturing the Conservative party and putting us into a box. And the box was marked "Nasty, Extreme, Strange". I have to break us out of that.'

To say that the knives have come out for Iain Duncan Smith would be wrong. Some never put them away in the first place; others, dismissive at first, have come to respect the persistence of a patently decent man trying to do one of the worst jobs in Britain. Yet from some quarters, not least from the Right of his party, the rumblings are becoming louder. There are no clear signs of policy. The open goal that a dishonest and incompetent government has exposed is not, they say, being attacked. The opposition seems as obsessed with style as is the government, and Mr Duncan Smith is a man of sound instincts who, they say, finds himself forced to suppress them so as not to appear `Nasty, Extreme, Strange'.

`If we were to be fair,' he says, `we'd go back to all the times the Conservatives were in opposition and see how that charge was levelled at Mrs Thatcher, and how it was even levelled at Churchill. From the time she was elected, right up until 1978, she was roundly scorned by the press on the grounds that she was ineffective. I have to live in a world that says the opposition doesn't exist.'

He knows that Mr Blair still has some public appeal. `They bought the lie that this guy was a conservative, and that they could live with him even if he was in the wrong party. We have to get all those people back - about another 9 or 10 per cent in the polls. We have to change those people's view of us. The view they have dates back to 1997. It is quite breathtaking. After five years of this government, you would expect that they must have forgotten about that: He insists that `It's a policy-based campaign. The first part of it is to focus on the government's failure. First describe the problem. Then make the problem clear to the public. Then show that there's a way out of that problem.' We are still somewhere between phase one and phase two.

I say that many feel he is suppressing his instincts. `They're wrong. Of course people will tell me not to follow my instincts. That's the nature of politics. If people want me to be somebody else, then they're dealing with the wrong man. I got elected to the leadership on this strategy. I said that under me the party would campaign on the public services. We had to get back on the quality-of-life issues that dominate everybody's lives.

`Everything else follows from there. You can talk about tax reduction when you know what you're going to do about the health service, when you know what you're going to do about education. You can't do it before, because you're not credible. If I went out tomorrow and talked about tax reduction, the public would say, "There you go again, they're not credible." Logically, you talk about the money second.'

His vision is called `help the vulnerable'. He talks of how wealthier people can choose private health or private schools; but `the people who are hurt are those on low and marginal incomes who don't have the power to choose.' This touchy-feely rhetoric again prompts consideration of his instincts and values. He protests that `My party stands for the values it has always stood for. It believes that people make the best decisions when they control their own lives, and that society generally is better if people are left to get on with their lives. Smaller government makes bigger people. …

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