Pulling their putsches

Whether MPs back or sack Iain Duncan Smith, things can only get worse for the Tories.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

After six weeks of subterfuge, the battle for the Tory Party leadership seems to be coming to a head. The requisite 25 Tory MPs have reportedly written to the head of the party’s committee of backbench MPs, the ‘1922 committee’, asking for a vote of confidence in their leader, Iain Duncan Smith (1).

All sides say that they want to end the weeks of back-biting and sniping. But whether IDS is backed or sacked, the affair is likely only to perpetuate the problems in the party.

The debate about the Tory leadership is an evasion of the crisis within the Conservative Party. Personality politics might define our era, but it cannot provide a solution to a party that is just falling apart. The plotters against IDS seem convinced that the woes of the Tory Party are due to the ineptitude of one man. IDS lacks ‘charisma’, they moan; he doesn’t ‘look like a prime minister’; he doesn’t seem determined; he can’t speak in public.

Anybody who witnessed the leader’s painfully pretend speech to the recent party conference – or who has seen his record in Parliament – knows that these criticisms are true. But rather than resulting from his personality deficiency, IDS’s inadequacies may be due to the fact that he is leading a party in its death throes. It must be hard to muster up charisma and determination when you are at the head of a party that has no sense of itself.

Rather than face up to the party’s problems, some Tory MPs seem to be hoping that the magic bullet of a new leader will make it all better. They are waiting for some charismatic hero to define the party’s policies and transform it back into a viable electoral force.

Of course, no hero is forthcoming. Prospective leaders such as Kenneth Clarke and Michael Howard have denied that they have any such ambitions. And it is difficult to envisage the likes of Tim Yeo or Michael Ancram being much of an improvement on IDS. The leadership of the Conservative Party is a poisoned chalice – it would be the ruin of anyone who took it.

It is because plotters are evading the party’s problems, rather than proposing solutions, that the whole affair is conducted in such secrecy. Whisperers have been nameless and faceless, briefing against IDS to the media but refusing to challenge him in public. Reports of the Conservative Party conference were peppered with party members’ criticisms of IDS, but when a plotter was ‘outed’ he furiously denied it. The contrast between MPs’ private venom and public timidity suggests that this is personal cynicism rather than a political challenge.

The sending of letters to the 1922 committee has been conducted in an atmosphere of paranoia. According to a report in The Times, some MPs have put their letter in three envelopes, fearful that it might be opened by the wrong person (2). Official acknowledgements have been sent with advance warning, so that a plotter’s secretary doesn’t leave it lying around (though it is notable that MPs’ secrecy policy didn’t extend to The Times).

Even those MPs who have admitted to sending a letter, say that they only did so for the sake of IDS. Francis Maude came forward on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 28 October, saying that he had backed a leadership contest because he absolutely agreed with IDS that a line should be drawn under the affair. The fact that he thought IDS was not the best man for the job was a muttered footnote.

Whether IDS wins or loses the leadership challenge, the problems in the Tory Party seem set to continue. While these are of little interest or concern to anybody but the remaining embattled membership, the ignominious spectacle of Conservative MPs back-stabbing and undermining their leader does cast a more general light on the dire state of politics today.

There is also the fact that speculation about the crisis in the Tory Party fills the radio waves and comment pages, so it is difficult to avoid it even if you try. Right now, Iain Duncan Smith is not the only one wishing that the whole issue would just go away.

Read on:

The strange death of Tory England, by Josie Appleton

(1) Duncan Smith faces leadership vote, BBC News, 28 October

(2) ‘Last-minute rush to round up the rebels’, The Times, 28 October 2003

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Topics Politics


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