Peter Oborne

This week Iain Duncan Smith finally turned his back on the media/political class

This week Iain Duncan Smith finally turned his back on the media/political class

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There are many symptoms of contemporary decline from the healthy and robust democratic politics of the mid-20th century. They include the death of public oratory, the rise of the leadership cult and the use of mass-advertising techniques to manipulate voters. But most telling of all is the rise of a narrow, exclusive, metropolitan elite of political technocrats.

It is impossible to get to grips with modern politics without understanding the ubiquity of this phenomenon. In the case of New Labour, its presiding symbol is the Downing Street director of communications, Alastair Campbell, and the scores of cronies and 'special advisers' who congregate around government ministers. They have been responsible for many of the least attractive features of the Blair government: its deceptions, smear campaigns and character assassinations, carried out mainly through a collaborationist political press.

This new caste is rapidly coming to wield more power and exercise more influence than elected politicians. It has taken over the management of the two main political parties, and has deep links with the media. Indeed, many of the personnel are identical, switching effortlessly from backroom politics into journalism or broadcasting and back again, thus creating a new political/media class that talks only to itself. This class operates through leaks and furtive briefings for secret ends.

Political reporters have no option but to engage with this metropolitan conspiracy. Doing so gives them access to information far more readily than reading political speeches or reporting events in the House of Commons - the stock-in-trade of the traditional political correspondent. To give one example of how the post-democratic model works: reporting of the Conservative party during the Hague leadership was almost exclusively based on unsourced briefing by competing senior Central Office officials to favoured journalists, mainly on the Times. To give another case in point: the career of the Cabinet minister Mo Mowlam was wrecked after incessant hostile briefing from within Labour's Millbank HQ and Downing Street.

Iain Duncan Smith claimed this week that the twin departures of Mark MacGregor, the Conservative party chief of staff, and the research director, Rick Nye, were internal matters of no consequence. In a representative democracy, of the kind that ceased to have any meaningful existence in Britain about ten years ago, he would have been right. In practice, this episode may turn out to be a crucial turning-point.

Iain Duncan Smith, unusually for a modern politician, came from right outside the system. A soldier and businessman, he knew practically nobody when he arrived at Westminster. In the country at large, this was a strength. He defeated Kenneth Clarke and Michael Portillo in the 2001 leadership election precisely because Conservative voters up and down Britain felt a visceral repulsion for the metropolitan preoccupations of the political/media class. But when Duncan Smith won his unexpected victory, he was presented with a problem. All the obvious candidates to fill key administrative posts in the leader's office had supported his rivals. Some of his appointments nevertheless proved sound. Greg Clarke, for instance, Duncan Smith's head of policy, is universally respected. Besides high intellect, Clarke's secret is that he has never engaged in factional battles, confused his own role with that of an elected politician, or sought to build a relationship with the media at the expense of the Tory leader.

Others are more overtly political, and one of them is MacGregor. He has been involved, to an obsessive extent, with Tory politics ever since the 1980s. MacGregor was made chairman of the Federation of Conservative Students just before it was closed down in 1986 by Norman Tebbit, then Conservative party chairman. The FCS used to pursue an ultra-Thatcherite agenda. Some of its members embraced causes like the privatisation of the British monarchy and the legalisation of hard drugs. John Bercow, the Tory MP who resigned from the shadow Cabinet last year, was another member of the FCS and is a close friend of MacGregor.

After the closure of this unappetising student ginger group, most of its members affiliated themselves to Michael Portillo. In the early 1990s, when Portillo was striking a pose as the leading right-wing critic of John Major, they would place themselves at strategic points in the hall during Conservative party conference to orchestrate loud applause for their hero and to heckle left-wingers. Many of those FCS students were in at the launch of Conservative Way Forward, the internal Tory pressure group. The CWF is the nearest thing the Conservative party has seen to the Militant Tendency. Its members colluded to secure the election of its own candidates in key seats, and many saw the real objective as securing the leadership for Michael Portillo. When Portillo embarked on his journey from the hard Right to the soft centre of British politics after 1997, the CWF was, with exceptions, happy to follow him. The FCS students who were banned by Norman Tebbit for being too right wing in the 1980s converted themselves, in a wonderful irony, into the modernising faction that now makes the case for emasculating traditional Tory policies on issues like taxation, law and order, and immigration.

The importance of this week's events is that it marked the moment when Iain Duncan Smith finally turned his back on the media/political class. There have been a number of signs that this split was about to happen. In policy terms, the ineptly handled shift on tax policy just before Christmas was an indication that modernisers like Mark MacGregor were no longer being listened to. In personnel terms, the arrival of Stephan Shakespeare as favoured Central Office pollster was the critical event. MacGregor and Nye regarded Shakespeare as a charlatan. Shakespeare's polling organisation has now taken over from Live Strategy (now renamed Populus) favoured by MacGregor. Live Strategy was run by two talented Tory modernisers, Andrew Cooper and Michael Simmonds. Cooper and Simmonds, both supporters of Michael Portillo, left Central Office in the purge of Portillo supporters instigated when William Hague was Tory leader. All of this is complicated, and perhaps I have explained it badly. All I can assert in mitigation is that it is important for an understanding of the modern Tory party and the predicament faced by Duncan Smith.

The appointment of Barry Legg, until 1997 MP for Milton Keynes, as MacGregor's replacement as chief of staff, will cause even deeper fury among Tory modernisers. Conservative Way Forward has long felt extreme hostility to Legg, on account of his support for John Redwood. Legg is also regarded with abhorrence by the Clarkeite wing of the Tory party because of his support for the Maastricht rebellion of 1992-4.

Iain Duncan Smith is a simple man. But, as the events of the last few days amply show, the Conservative party is unfathomable. Rarely in British history has this country been so in need of a strong and coherent opposition. And rarely has the prospect been so distant.