Iain Duncan Smith: The leader vanishes

Less than a week after being dumped by his party, Iain Duncan Smith has launched a new version of himself: IDS, writer of thrillers. But does a man not noted for his power to excite have what it takes for his new life? John Walsh asks him
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In the stately grounds of Horwood House, a 120-room hotel barely a hen's race from Milton Keynes, Iain Duncan Smith is being photographed for a tabloid newspaper. The camera clicks and whirrs in the sunshine, the flame-haired lady interviewer says, "OK Iain, I'm gonna have to take your mobile number", in an urgent, need-to-know voice, and Annabel, his long-serving PA, checks her tape recorder. For a man whose political career has taken a sudden and vertiginous nosedive, there's a lot of bustle around the about-to-be-former Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition.

He is looking studiedly casual on this sunny morning - in an open-necked blue shirt of some shimmery glazed-cotton fabric, with non-matching cufflinks (steady on!), in navy chinos held up by the sort of striped elastic belt you associate with snake-clasps and Boy Scouts, and a pair of brown suede shoes, he is so informal as to be practically in Bermuda shorts. He even sucks a sweet while discoursing about social justice. Everything about him shouts "Yay! Freedom! Off the leash! Off the treadmill!" - everything, that is, except his face and his conversation, both of which are cautious and guarded in the extreme. When shaking hands, he tilts his head back and regards you as if suspecting you of carrying a hidden Derringer or, at least, a letter to the 1922 Committee.

When talking, he inspects your questions like a bomb-disposal officer. He is phenomenally serious about everything. You could ask him about inner-city strife and ingrowing toenails, about fiscal policy and Finding Nemo, and he'd answer you with precisely the same scrupulous clarity in that familiar raspy drawl.

"When Michael Portillo lost his seat in 1997," I say, "he was discovered three weeks later lying on a lilo in Dubai reading A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. When Al Gore was pipped to the presidency by George W Bush, he was found a fortnight later in a nightclub, bearded and dancing wildly with foxy waitresses. Will you be doing anything like that?"

"Clearly, I don't have the day-to-day bind - well, I will for another week or two - of being the leader of the Conservative Party, which is a pretty oppressive process," he says. "I'm going to be able to live my life a bit now. I don't mean that in a ludicrous or irrelevant way. I'm still a politician, I still have strong political views and ambitions, but now they'll be channelled in a slightly different way..."

We turn to his book, the reason for our meeting in sunny Bucks. It's called The Devil's Tune, and is a 400-page thriller-cum-wartime-mystery-cum-political-vendetta, set in London, New York, Washington and Italy. It starts with shady fine-art shenanigans in Positano and London, then cuts to a Clinton-like American president with a murky, Whitewater-ish scandal in his background.

"I wrote this book because there are some themes I thought it would be enjoyable to see put down. The original theme was art fraud. I recalled a visit to Monte Cassino with my father, when we looked around the Abbey and noticed gaps on the walls. One of the monks told me that there were many paintings and sculptures that were shipped to safety during the war and never came back. I thought it would be interesting to find out what happened to this stuff, and how you smuggled famous paintings.

"Then about 1994/5 I got to thinking how it would be if someone from the war was standing for the presidency - this was about the time Bob Dole was running - and added the themes together, so I had two individuals, one holding power, one pursuing power. I wrote the outlines before 1996/7, pulled it all together as a first draft in those two years, then fiddled with it for another two years. Then in 2000, I talked to Betsey and the general view was, why not send it to an agent and see what they think."

The Devil's Tune is a remarkable thriller in being, for much of its considerable length, militantly un-thrilling. Its hero, John Grande, is a haunted, bereaved, chronically jet-lagged and woefully inept gallery owner who has terrible rows with his gay business partner and becomes embroiled with some Italian-American heavies from central casting. Wherever he goes, dead bodies mount up like autumn leaves. His response to the news that another lawyer/ friend/ business associate has been blown away, and that he is now wanted on suspicion of murder in two continents, is a kind of petulant blankness.

I especially liked the scene where John walks along a snowy 42nd Street in New York, drops his keys, bends to retrieve them - and a gunshot from a drive-by limo narrowly misses him and shatters a plate-glass window. "You all right?" a passer-by demands. "Yes," says John, "Why do you ask?"

When we met, Duncan Smith had read one bruising review (in The Daily Telegraph, of all places) and was on the defensive. "This is not a highbrow book," he says. "It's just something I wrote for my own amusement, not even for publication. I know it's not going to win the Booker prize..."

There's a lot of arty name-checking in The Devil's Tune, as if its author was insisting he had plenty of cultural hinterland outside politics, thank you very much: architecture, Art Deco, obscure Italian painters, the poems of Constantine Cavafy. Was he showing off his rich interior life?

"Not really. One of the books I love is DH Lawrence's great book about Alexandria."

"I didn't realise he'd written one," I say.

"Well, more a series of books, The Alexandria Quartet."

"I think that's by Lawrence Durrell."

"Yeah, yeah," says Duncan Smith, ignoring the interruption, "but I love the way he opens chapters with descriptions of weather, and they set the whole scene for the rest of the chapter. Please don't for a moment think I'm trying to compare myself with him, because I'm not - but the reason I write this way is because I disagree with straight-up-and-down thrillers in which so much of that stuff is knocked to one side and it's all dialogue."

He is, it turns out, a very cultured man. He loves poetry, especially Dylan Thomas, Keats, George Herbert, admires the films of Orson Welles ("I think Touch of Evil is a wonderful film") and Alfred Hitchcock ("Yes, the plot of The Devil's Tune is a bit like The 39 Steps - but so is every book about an innocent abroad"), and laughs about "the merging of Churchill and Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. Remember in the second film, when Gandalf comes back and says, 'The battle for Helm's Deep is over - but the battle for Middle Earth is about to begin' - I leaned over to my son, who's 16, and said, 'That's Churchill'."

He reads modern fiction when he gets a chance and, "I've dipped into the [John] Grisham stuff. You can read them quite quickly, which is a blessing." Her does not, on the other hand, read novels written by his fellow MPs - Archer, Hurd, Widdecombe; not even Edwina Currie. "No, I haven't read any of her books. I don't know what they're like, to be honest."

"The last one," I say, "was famous for a love scene featuring a pot of British Home Stores chocolate sauce."

"There's none of that in my book," says Duncan Smith shortly. "You'll find me rather prudish in that sense. I've a problem with people who think they're brilliant at writing about sex, because generally they're not. Sometimes, you know what I mean, you get to the end of chapter three, the last couple of pages and... and you've read all this stuff somewhere else, only it was in reverse order last time, and the other way around..."

"Since the invention of the Bad Sex Award," I say, "fewer authors write sex scenes, because they're afraid of being laughed at."

"I don't think it's a bad thing, to be frank. It reached the stage where you got to chapter three, the last page and a half, and you got all this damn stuff that came out, that didn't sound like anything I was ever aware of..."

Blimey. What on earth was this book with the infamous third chapter?

"...and it was pretty turgid really, pretty boring, so I skipped over it. So there isn't any of that in my book, I'm sorry."

Inevitably, one looks for an IDS figure in the book, a figure with a moral dimension- and one finds it in Senator Ewan Kelp, the 72-year-old Democratic rival to President Carson. Kelp comes across as a classic outsider and maverick, determined to nail the morally dubious Carson - but it's soon clear that Kelp's natural idealism hasn't stopped him becoming a cold-hearted and ruthless plotter. What was his creator's attitude?

"I wanted to write about how the pursuit of power, and power itself, has a corrupting influence in the way you live your life. You make decisions about things which you wouldn't agree to if you stood back for 10 minutes and got some perspective. There's a relevance today in the Government's pursuit of Dr Kelly. If everybody stopped and said, 'Hold on, hold on, what the hell are we doing here?', none of it would have happened. It's what inevitably happens when politicians respond to events and become more desperate and insular about their future." He pauses. "Kelp starts off certain that he's doing things for the right reasons. He isn't a bad man, just a man who has allowed himself to be taken along by events." Does he - IDS - feel he's become morally compromised by power? "I guess that you have to make decisions that you might not make in a perfect world, but the world's not perfect. I like to think you keep in front of you the idea that there are limits to the way you behave."

Duncan Smith is big on reflection, perspective and restraint; his standing-back-before-making-decisions speech is a trope he often repeats. It seemed an odd obsession for a man who enjoyed his time in the army, where presumably there's not much time for rumination and hesitation.

What about the army appealed to him? "The leadership bit, being in charge of people from different backgrounds. As a platoon commander, I liked the personal relationships. You get to know people, their failings and successes. The worst bit was when I'd left the army in 1981. Very shortly after they were in the Falklands, my platoon, and a number of people I'd led were killed." He blinks, his icy blue eyes suddenly thawing. "I remember reading their names on a list, and to this day I can still conjure up a picture of a smiling face. I remember one particular chap, who once made me roar with laughter. I remember him today as clearly as you're sitting there. He's dead now."

Duncan Smith gives the impression of a man to whom laughter is as alien as chapter three sex. I wouldn't say he has no sense of humour, but you wouldn't find him convulsing a snug with merriment. His most natural mode is being right, and clear, and honest, and straight, thinking things out in a tidy way, making undertakings and sticking to them. His other natural bent is, strangely enough, towards redundancy. I asked him which bits of his own past experience - the CV that took him from the army to GEC and Janes Information Systems - most helped in writing the book. "Being a publisher, I suppose. I enjoyed all the process. The rest was just a series of experiences. I guess the most searing experience was being made redundant, really - and, more than that, making people redundant. I had both experiences. You get in your car and drive home early, and tell your wife that evening that the wheels just came off the bus, and it takes you a long time to come to terms with how you're going to move on, and you're worried about money and finance and paying the mortgage...

"In fact, after GEC, I went quite swiftly back into another job, where almost immediately I had to make people redundant. I can remember sitting with them, one by one, knowing exactly how they felt, having just been through it myself. One man went on to die of a heart attack six months later. I felt absolutely awful about it, though his wife was sweet about it, and said he had a heart problem anyway..."

He'd had to discipline men in his platoon. He famously fired lots of advisers while leader of the Tory party. He fired people in business. A professional hitman would have seen fewer quaking victims that Iain Duncan Smith. Has he evolved a workable firing strategy? "I just take the view that you have to do it yourself. I say to them straight, 'Look, I'm facing a dilemma, and I'm afraid it affects you. I'm afraid I'm going to have to get rid of you from the company. It's a blow, I know exactly how you feel, don't feel this is the end, in fact you may find this is the beginning of a new start for you. But I'm sorry, we can't afford to keep you on..."

Bloody hell. So this is what it's like being fired by Iain Duncan Smith. Death by a thousand clichés. Despite wild tabloid rumours - one of which confidently reported that he was about to write a musical about Mrs Thatcher - Iain Duncan Smith's immediate plans are rather staid. "I just want to get on with my life and see where this takes me. If nobody throws their hat into the ring about the leadership, it will all be over by Thursday. My book is launched that day, and I'm quite relaxed about what people think of it, and after that I'll think about whether I want to write any more books. There's certainly some political stuff I want to write."

A thought strikes me. "You haven't been keeping a diary by any chance, have you?"

"No I don't like diaries. In my experience, people who keep diaries keep them for a reason. I think you have to be rather catty and bitchy to be a diarist and that's not something I'm very good at being. It's just not me. Maybe it's one of my failings."

You look at this scrupulous, decent, straight-dealing, poetry-loving, redundancy-dishing-out former leader of men and think: yes Iain, a bit of bitchiness would be a start.

'The Devil's Tune' is published on Thursday by Robson Books, £16.95

Politically correct? A taste of The Devil's Tune

Both Kelp and his wife sat without speaking as the seconds ticked by, gazing out of the windows as the car moved through the town.

"Well," Kelp turned to her, "what do you think?"

"You were good, Ewan, but then you always are," she replied tersely.

"Is that it?" he snorted. "Just good?"

"Well, what else do you want?"

"Some support, I guess."

"You've always had my support. You always knew that." She looked out of the window, her face flushed. "Why now? That's what bothers me. Last time when you pulled out you said it was over, you'd never think of running again. After all the attacks from the press, you were so hurt. I believed you and I thanked God," she shook her head, "I guess that's the kind of fool I am."

"I meant it. I really did."

"Then why..." she turned and looked at him, "did you decide to go ahead now? You didn't even ask me - you just told me."

"What was I to do?" He turned away in exasperation. "Carson's betrayed the American people, he..."

"That's nonsense, Ewan - this is your wife you're talking to. You want to be president and this is an opportunity, that's all..."

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