Magazine article The Spectator

Terminal Depression

Magazine article The Spectator

Terminal Depression

Article excerpt

In all its long history, the parliamentary Tory party has never been so depressed. If a doctor were to observe its current behaviour, he would put the patient on suicide watch.

When I spoke to Conservative MPs this week it was hard to find any spark of optimism, breath of hope or relish for the fight. Whether they are former ministers from the glory days of the Eighties or coming men who entered Parliament while the Tories have been in opposition, a universal darkness covers all. They feel saddled with a leader whom few imagine capable of winning an election, but most fear to remove.

Even those who do believe that a change of leader would help restore their fortunes are profoundly disturbed by the allegations being made about Mr Duncan Smith's payment of Commons fees to his wife Betsy. The thought that these charges emanate from individual Tories trying to force the leader out leaves most MPs with a feeling of distaste. Their natural inclination this week is to rally round their leader while he is under investigation, and suspend their judgment until the Parliamentary Commissioner tor Standards has given his. But even if the Conservative leader is completely acquitted by Sir Philip Mawer, I do not believe that will be the cathartic release which will lift the party out of its depression. For the root cause of the current Tory gloom will remain -the terrible aching tension between the knowledge that Mr Duncan Smith is not a credible alternative prime minister and the belief that any effort to remove him only risks making matters worse.

As one frontbench MP put it to me, 'We know he's a crap leader, but after the mess we've made picking the last two, the least we can do is give him a chance rather than pitching ourselves deeper into fratricide.'

A more positive case for maintaining Mr Duncan Smith in office was made forcefully in these pages last week by Peter Oborne. The leader has presided over a process of policy renewal which is just beginning to bear fruit. He is growing in confidence and finding his voice. Any leadership challenge would only make the party seem at once more frivolous and more vicious in the public's eyes.

These arguments have some force among Mr Duncan Smith's colleagues - any case against change will always resonate with Conservatives. But I fear they amount, at bottom, to a mixture of hope without firm foundation and fear without reasonable cause.

The hope that Mr Duncan Smith may yet, somehow, grow into a figure who could supplant Tony Blair as prime minister is not borne out by the evidence. And the fear that a leadership election will only further weaken the Tories is not based on a sober assessment of the facts.

Most Conservative MPs are only too painfully aware of Mr Duncan Smith's limitations, and after two years in office there is no indication that he is on anything like the trajectory required to transcend them. Quite the opposite.

Any alternative government must first convince the voters that it is, above all, competent. However attractive a party's policies and ideology, the electorate will not endorse them unless it is clear they can be implemented efficiently and authoritatively. The one thing which Mr Duncan Smith has been responsible for running in the last two years is the Conservative party, and it is on his record of managing that organisation that his claim rests to be able to govern the country well. Sadly, it is not a record rich in achievement.

As a man-manager and exploiter of talent, Mr Duncan Smith has been tragically weak. A succession of individuals have been recruited by the leader, only to find that they could not work effectively with him, and they have all left, costing the party hundreds of thousands in redundancy payments. These individuals were not without talent - his first chief of staff, Jenny Ungless, was a notably successful manager of the party's backbench research facility. His erstwhile director of strategy, Dominic Cummings, was an exceptionally gifted manager of the all-party anti-euro campaign who succeeded in rebranding euro-scepticism from a cause for fogeys to one with which Harry Enfield and Bob Geldof could feel comfortable. …

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