Tory MPs have decided to get rid of their leader in what are, on the face of it, surprising circumstances. The party is ahead in the polls by as much as 5 per cent. The recent Blackpool conference generated a host of new policies on health, education and welfare, most of which attracted favourable notices even from the BBC. At the most recent test of national electoral opinion, the 1 May council elections, Iain Duncan Smith’s Tories romped to victory and picked up 3,000 seats. There must have been some powerful incentive that drove Tory MPs to unseat a man elected, never let it be forgotten, by 61 per cent of the party membership. That incentive was fear.
It is of course true that for many weeks the plot against the leader was hyped up, and the number of plotters was exaggerated by the trompe l’oeil of the media. There has been more than a touch of Wenlock Jakes about recent events. Jakes was the reporter in Scoop who was dispatched to some Balkan capital to cover a coup, fell asleep in his train, woke in the wrong capital, and precipitated a genuine conflict by the sheer eyewitness vigour of his reporting. Rumours of war have turned into war, and prophecies of disaster have become self-fulfilling. Like the troops of Midian, the plotters have prowled round and round in the dark, willing to wound, afraid to strike, but perfectly happy to brief off the record. Day after day, the fog of intrigue has thickened, not dispersed.
The whole ludicrous business has, naturally, made excellent copy, and by Tuesday morning enough MPs had decided that the position of IDS was irretrievable, and that it was time to bring matters to a head. Thus a handful of malcontents were able to manipulate the media, and to turn subterranean rumblings into a full-scale eruption. It has, in its own way, been the consummate triumph of spin, a brilliantly confected disaster. That does not, however, entirely explain the willingness of 15 per cent of the parliamentary party to trigger a vote of confidence. The wretched truth is that for all IDS’s merits — and they are considerable — Tory MPs found themselves increasingly resenting the time spent, at any Tory meeting, defending his leadership. Members of the party, individually and collectively, seemed to be in a state of advanced schizophrenia on the question.
Audiences would cheer wildly any allusion to ‘loyalty to the leadership’; and if someone then stood up and urged the sacking of the leader, they would cheer that too. Party activists were demoralised by the poor showing in the Brent by-election. They were conscious that his party conference speech, though excellent on paper, suffered from nerves and over-rehearsal; and, to put it in a nutshell, too many of their mates were telling them in the pub that IDS would never be prime minister, because he ‘just hasn’t got it’. Until this week, it was conceivable that he could stagger through, and then recover. Indeed, had the plotters failed to produce the letters this week, it is not impossible that he could have been fortified, on the principle that anything that does not kill you makes you stronger. Maybe he could have been transformed by this awful experience, just as the mild-mannered Bruce Banner was turned by gamma rays into the Incredible Hulk.
By Tuesday, too few MPs believed that that was a plausible psychological reading of the man. They decided that a leadership contest was the lesser evil, though it means all manner of tedium. Unless we are careful, we will now have two months of exaggerated blackening, by one Tory, of this or that other Tory’s reputation. We will have endless false promises, and false protestations of loyalty. That is why it is enormously in the interests of the parliamentary party, and any so-called ‘big beasts’ within it, to show an immediate sense of maturity. Rather than putting the party membership through the misery of deciding between two candidates — as prescribed under the existing demented rules — the parliamentary party should simply decide who is best placed, and submit him or her.
Once that person is duly anointed, it is essential that all the talents of the party come to its rescue. Whoever is leader, it will be vital to have Ken Clarke, Michael Portillo and William Hague — all currently self-excluded — back in the front rank. There will be no excuse for anyone to hang back from the job. The cult of killing has gone on for too long in this party, and it is time it ceased. Iain Duncan Smith is a good man, and has in many ways been a successful leader, and Tories should feel gratitude to him for his efforts.
But as some ancient optimist, possibly a Chinaman, once put it, there are no disasters, only opportunities. The Tories have every chance, over the next few weeks, to test that proverb. If they fail, and they do not show that they are now preparing seriously not just to oppose Labour but to govern this country, then, in an ecstasy of irritation, the electorate may start to look at the alternatives.