To turn this week to the Conservative party, rather than deal with matters of consequence. On Wednesday morning George Jones, political editor of the Daily Telegraph, reported a ‘sharp slump in morale’ in the Tory party at Westminster. He stated that plotters are taking soundings to discover whether they can secure the necessary 25 signatures from Tory MPs to launch a vote of no confidence in Iain Duncan Smith. He judged that backbiting among Tory MPs ‘is the most serious since Lady Thatcher was forced to stand down as prime minister 12 years ago’.
George Jones is a sober and fastidious journalist. Though he does not name the conspirators, there is no reason to doubt his word. The Telegraph political editor accurately conjures up the mood in the Commons. It is only three weeks since the Tory conference at Bournemouth, an event which went far better than anyone expected. Duncan Smith produced a set of plausible and coherent policies, and made a powerful and moving platform speech. Afterwards reasonable people were inclined to the view that he had done enough to establish his leadership credentials for the time being.
This reading of events failed to take into account the character of modern Tory MPs. They were once solid, dependable characters, though too bovinely unimaginative for some tastes. Very few of them took much interest in politics – an admirable failing. Not so today’s excitable collection. The chattering started up again the moment Parliament returned two weeks ago. It was given extra impetus by a couple of shaky performances by Iain Duncan Smith at Prime Minister’s Questions, followed by a mini-disaster during the exchanges that followed Tony Blair’s summit statement on Monday.
A specimen of the modern Tory MP is Eric Forth, the shadow leader of the Commons. Forth affects a distaste for any political idea or practice dating from later than about 1850, and dresses like a Victorian undertaker out for a day at the races, with much flourishing of watch-chains and twirling of coloured handkerchiefs, all offset by a funereally dark suit. Forth’s antique exterior is illusory. Inside beats the heart of a regulation 21st-century Conservative MP – shallow, fickle, disloyal, vain and self-promoting.
It is Iain Duncan Smith’s misfortune that he is obliged to sit close to Forth at parliamentary questions. Forth feels that his status demands that he sit in the ‘bubble’ which surrounds the party leader. He makes abundant use of the proximity this gives him. The shadow leader of the House has taken to using body language, facial expressions or hand-movements to signal his independence from Duncan Smith. He did this by putting a pistol to his head during the Commons exchange over the A-level crisis, and was up to the same trick last week over policy on Europe. Forth’s fooling around, which derives from a vastly inflated sense of his own importance, amounts to insubordination bordering on treachery. Duncan Smith should not take this too personally: he is the second, if not third, successive party leader to whom Forth has been more or less openly disloyal. But the situation is bad for discipline, and readily exploited by the government. It is made more dangerous by the fact that everyone knows that Forth would be campaign manager in any David Davis leadership campaign (he once occupied a similar position vis-