Right! You’ve got 40 minutes,’ says Nick Wood, Iain Duncan Smith’s spin doctor, in the manner of a game-show host. We are sitting round a table in IDS’s office. Nick has a large glass of red wine in his hand and I have water. Iain can’t have a drink, I soon realise, because it would end up all over the wall after one of his emphatic hand gestures.
It has been a good week for IDS, perhaps his best since becoming leader of the opposition. Crispin Blunt may have plunged his dagger, but it turned out to have a rubber blade. The Tories gained more than 600 seats in the council elections, the Liberals failed to break through, and Labour did abysmally. Now is the time for the Tory leader to rout his internal critics, and take the fire into the enemy camp. IDS leans forward, hands clasped, eager to talk about ‘A fair deal’ – the campaign catchphrase for his new domestic policies.
‘We’re trying to demonstrate that the government has got it very badly wrong and that people will notice this failure,’ he says, looking me firmly in the eye. ‘We’re paying more tax but getting worse services. The alternative is a “Fair Deal”, which means that you don’t have to pay through the nose but you do have a right to better services. We’re talking about proper, radical reform.’ Duncan Smith has round eyes, and his skin is smooth and plumped out as if he has been slightly inflated.
In fact, the Fair Deal does sound like exactly the sort of thing this country needs: more choice, less bureaucracy. ‘I’ve been to France, Spain and Sweden and seen what to do,’ says Duncan Smith. ‘We must involve the private and voluntary sectors in a way that no one dares talk about in the Labour government. Take the schools in Holland: 70 per cent of them are being run by the voluntary sector. We’ve done the homework. Now all I have to do is go out and say to people, you want this.’
This is the part that slightly worries me. It isn’t at all clear how people are going to find out that they want this. Duncan Smith says repeatedly that he doesn’t believe in ‘razzmatazz’, and is loath to try to present either himself or his ideas in a flashy way.
Why did you choose the phrase ‘a Fair Deal’? I ask.
‘I don’t know,’ IDS sits back and folds his arms. ‘I mean, you tell me. I mean, you probably think it’s the most boring thing you ever heard.’ He laughs, then slips back into the stream of practised phrases: ‘I think people were actually sold a Tory government without the Tory party. But it was a false sale. The harder you save, the more of your money the Labour party takes.’
So, by how much does he plan to lower the 40 per cent of GDP that now goes on taxes? ‘I’m not going to get into the percentage game, but I will certainly be bearing down on taxation.’
The only non-domestic subject of his speech on Tuesday was the euro and the need for a referendum. What will Conservative policy be if the people vote in favour of the euro? I ask.
He chuckles. Someone, perhaps Nick Wood, has definitely told Duncan Smith to laugh in the face of opposition. ‘I tell you this right now. They’re not going to. So the only question I’ll take is: will the government ever get to a referendum?’
Does that mean you haven’t made up your mind yet?
‘No, it’s not that, it’s not that. It’s that I passionately believe I’m going to win that referendum, and I will therefore only focus on one thing, which is winning.’
Irrespective of the results of a referendum, by all accounts IDS thinks Britain must renegotiate its position in Europe anyway. What, I ask, if France and Germany are not amenable? Would the Conservative party threaten to pull out of Europe altogether?
‘The reality is now that France and Germany can no longer dominate this debate. But I don’t want to talk about that right now.’
Duncan Smith repeatedly deals with unfavourable hypothetical situations by refusing to countenance them. Would he, for instance, have second thoughts about the war on Iraq if it were proved that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction?
‘Well, it can’t be proved. The arms inspectors already showed that they had vast amounts of WMD as late as 1999. The question is what did Saddam Hussein do with them?’
Yes, right, exactly, I say, wanting him to know that I am on his side. There is a large cube of wood with a leaf pressed into it on his desk; perhaps, seen from the other side, it is a photo frame. I change tack: Blair said that he was prepared to answer to his Maker on sending troops to Iraq. As a Christian, would you say the same of yourself?
‘Did he say that? I hadn’t seen that actually.’ Duncan Smith’s famous eyebrows move upwards. I am delighted that someone knows less about what’s going on than I do. Nick Wood prompts him: ‘It was on the front page of the Times.’
‘I didn’t see that. I don’t really read the papers anyway,’ replies IDS, laughing again. ‘Why the hell would I read that?’
To what extent does your religion inform your politics?
‘I’m a practising Christian,’ says IDS, ‘so I like to think it has an effect. But like all things it has an effect in some ways and not others.’
‘At this point, Iain, I’m supposed to interrupt you and say, “We don’t do God,”‘ says Wood, with a grin. There is another silence. ‘Like Alastair Campbell,’ Wood prompts.
IDS looks even blanker. ‘OK,’ he says. ‘But God does us really, doesn’t he?’
Why are we seeing so many stories about splits in your party? I ask, not looking at Nick Wood.
‘Actually there are fewer divisions in the Conservative party, on the issues that matter, than in the Labour party,’ says Iain. ‘I mean, you know, families have disputes over little things.’
But you love each other really? I say.
‘We don’t love each other. We just get on with each other.’ Duncan Smith is firm. ‘We are a party. Actually, I think you’ve got to ask yourselves, in the media, why there is so much coverage of rows. The general public are really quite bored by these sorts of stories. They’re deathly dull. But it’s the easiest thing to write. If you’re sitting in the lobby up there at your desk, you can type it in 15 minutes.’
Duncan Smith thinks that the public are sick of sensationalism and that he can somehow bypass the media in delivering his Fair Deal to the country. My attempt, in the last few minutes of our conversation, to convince him that floating voters don’t spend their leisure hours reading political pamphlets, and that their attention needs to be won, falls on deaf ears. For Duncan Smith, neither he nor his party needs an ‘image’ because his irresistible policies will shine through, illuminating them both.
‘The reality is that you can’t be something you’re not. I’d be crucified if I suddenly emerged like a butterfly out of a chrysalis,’ he says. ‘The changes themselves will grip people’s imaginations and excite their intelligence and intellect. They will say, “This is the most exciting thing that is going to happen to us.”‘
If last week’s results are anything to go by, he might just be proved right.
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