Andrew Gimson

Portillo approaches the Tory party as a joyrider approaches someone else’s car

Portillo approaches the Tory party as a joyrider approaches someone else's car

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The manner in which Iain Duncan Smith turned and faced his tormentors on Tuesday was reminiscent of the bravery shown by Prang, a bull terrier kept by his father while serving in India with the RAF after the second world war. The Conservative leader recently related how his father saw Prang deal with the danger of being torn limb from limb.

Early one morning, he was taking Prang for a walk, and the dog was running on ahead. Then my father heard the sound of hunting horns, and a pack of hounds came streaming over the hill ahead of the hunt. They were big animals, because they hunt jackals in those parts. The hounds caught the scent of the bull terrier and came charging towards him. Father ran to try to intervene, but couldn't make it. Prang saw the hounds hurtling towards him but, whereas most dogs would have run, he just turned slowly so that he was facing them head-on. Everything about him, my father said, was rock-still except for his tail which just twitched from side to side. When the hounds got to him, it was like waves hitting a rock. They didn't go for Prang; they just circled him. Father said Prang's eyes followed each of them as they went past. He was just waiting for the first one to make a move, and saying: 'Come on, then, be my guest. Who's the first?' By being determined and unafraid, he survived. Eventually the huntsmen arrived and called the hounds off. One of them said: 'Thank God your dog didn't run.' Father said: 'He never would.' The point my father was making in telling me the story was: always stand your ground.

Mr Duncan Smith's critics will say that this anecdote, published in a recent article by Graham Turner in the Daily Telegraph, is hopelessly out of date. They will observe, in a contemptuous tone, that a leader who wishes to modernise the Conservative party cannot afford to model himself on a dog that seems to have sprung straight from the pages of Jack London. The critics say Mr Duncan Smith has completely misjudged the situation, by vastly exaggerating the opposition to himself. Far from being in mortal peril, he was not doing too badly until he made the blunder of imposing a three-line whip for Monday-night's vote on the Adoption and Children's Bill.

On this analysis, Mr Duncan Smith created a full-blown rebellion out of nothing more than some malicious sniping, allied to an honest difference of opinion about an issue of conscience. He then compounded his error by giving the impression that all 35 Conservatives who abstained in the vote on Monday night, as well as the eight who voted against the three-line whip, were rebelling against him personally. How much cleverer he would have been to play down the significance of the rebellion - a mere eight votes cast against, after all - and to demonstrate that he was continuing with business as normal.

One can see the force of that argument and I must admit that my first reaction, when I heard Mr Duncan Smith make his 'unite or die' statement on Tuesday, was that he was committing political suicide. It seemed so gratuitous to raise the stakes in this way. The man appears to have no tactical finesse whatever. He faces difficulties of the order faced by Neil Kinnock when he set out to reform the Labour party in the 1980s, but as one long-serving Conservative put it to me, 'We are starting to fear that Duncan Smith may be more stupid than Kinnock.'

Yet the sheer unfashionableness of Mr Duncan Smith's behaviour compels admiration. He has not sought to smooth away difficulties by resorting to the deceitful pretence that nothing much is wrong. He has told the Conservative party that it is fighting for its political life, which is true. He has forced it to peer into the abyss. Does it really imagine that it can afford to hold another leadership election, barely a year after it elected Mr Duncan Smith? Is it sane for the Conservatives to start fighting each other, at the very moment when on a variety of fronts the Labour government is running into difficulties?

These questions cannot be dodged by 'our Spanish friend', as some of Mr Duncan Smith's people refer to Michael Portillo. We live in an age when the authority commanded by various professions has collapsed. Doctors, teachers and Tory leaders no longer command the respect they did 50 years ago. Very few of us have served in the armed forces; the officer class has shrunk to a point where it provides no real counterweight to the yobbish tendencies that have always been one of this country's salient features; and discipline in hospitals, schools and the Conservative party has become alarmingly lax. Those terrifying figures - the matron, the teacher with his cane, and the party whip with his annihilating threats - are at one with Nineveh and Tyre. They have been replaced by a system of voluntary discipline, resting on the pious notion that we are all responsive to the power of sweet reason and will choose to behave responsibly because we value the institutions to which we belong. Does Mr Portillo value the Conservative party, or does he regard it with all the affection of a joyrider for someone else's car?

Amid the torrent of scornful and condescending comment which burst over Mr Duncan Smith's head after his 'unite or die' statement, one point was often overlooked. He has to lead, or try to lead, the Conservative party in his own way. The sniping at him, which commentators who never face anything more frightening than a computer screen said he should rise above, had created in him a vexation - a paranoia, his enemies would say - which could no longer be suppressed. He had to give vent to his feelings, even at the risk of making himself look like the secretary of an obscure golf club who has lost his cool when certain members yet again fail to show him the respect to which he feels he is entitled.

Mr Duncan Smith needs a showdown in order to learn how to be himself in the more or less impossible job which he has taken on. It is a pity that the first sign of fighting spirit he has shown has been directed at his own MPs, but perhaps it will be followed by aggression directed against the government. The quietness with which Mr Duncan Smith has approached the task of dismantling New Labour has not proved an unqualified success. In order to put heart and hope into his own troops, he must land some blows on the government, and this is perhaps something he can only do when he himself feels absolutely desperate. He is a man who needs a crisis in order to give of his best, and therefore he has manufactured one. This argument may amount to clutching at straws, but expectations of Mr Duncan Smith's leadership are now so low that he is in a good position to exceed them.

Peter Oborne is away.