Iain Duncan Smith: 'I believe connecting with people in the worst communities is the way the Tories should go'

Former Conservative leader; MP for Chingford and Woodford Green
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The Independent Online

Iain Duncan Smith could be forgiven for allowing himself to smile over the toast and marmalade when he read The Independent on Sunday poll yesterday showing the Tories trailing Labour by a wider margin than when he was leader.

Mr Duncan Smith was ousted on 29 October 2003, after 25 months in the job, replaced by Michael Howard to give the Conservatives some hope of defeating Tony Blair. It has not worked. The Tories are now 11 points behind Labour, despite Mr Blair's unpopularity over the war on Iraq.

Mr Howard is persona non grata at the White House for criticising Mr Blair over Iraq. Karl Rove, the President's chief of staff, left a message for Mr Howard telling his office not even to bother trying to see the President. Mr Duncan Smith, a highly respected friend of the Bush family, has had two recent meetings with Condoleezza Rice, who is about to become the first black female US Secretary of State, and long conversations with Mr Bush.

But Mr Duncan Smith is not a man to gloat. He told The Independent: "I am absolutely determined the Conservatives will back Michael all the way through. As long as he wants to do this job, he has my full support."

He appears far more relaxed, now the weight of the leadership has been removed. The frog in his throat has gone. And he remains irrepressibly upbeat about Tory chances of winning the next election. "The polls may look tough at the moment," he says. "I sense out there the public is unhappy about the present government, but the polls don't reflect the depth of dissatisfaction. You need to make people feel good. We know in the last election people have not felt good about voting Conservative. You need to make people feel positive about voting. The Conservatives are right on the edge of that."

He is about to publish a pamphlet on the lessons the Conservatives could learn from George Bush's re-election and from the triumph of the conservatives in Australia under John Howard, whom he describes as the greatest Conservative since his mentor, Margaret Thatcher. He believes Tony Blair is making a fatal mistake in believing Mr Bush won the election on fear. He says no one had to teach the Americans about fear of terrorism. They got that message after 9/11. He claims the election was won on Mr Bush's ability to connect to ordinary voters.

"A lot of commentators have said it was all about Bible-thumping, and heavy doses of extreme Christianity. Rhetorically, there may have been some of that and America in that regard is different because religion plays a more obvious part in the make-up of America, but if you strip all this out and boil down what actually they thought of when they looked at Bush, there was a set of very clear values they felt he represented.

"He got very nearly close to 50 per cent of the Hispanic vote, almost inconceivable before that the Republicans would get almost half of that vote. He increased the number of blacks who voted for Bush. They were beginning to reach out to groups that normally they would have completely written off. It's because they were talking of the sense of who they are, strong families leading to strong communities.

"If you are going to help and support families you can do it through taxation; you also help families if you do it through dealing with crime in the community because communities blighted by crime mean families cannot carry out their normal lives, the elderly cannot be looked after properly.

"You deal with issues that break up families. You deal with drug addiction. You deal with debt. Debt racks communities in the worst areas. Very simple values that are about people's problems, not about the way we think they should run their lives, not being judgmental on the way you live your lives."

Mr Duncan Smith wants the Conservatives to adopt a US-style "values-based agenda rather than rhetoric". He adds: "We think it's time to strip out all the rhetoric and look at what really happened. Not just America but Australia. In Australia, the conservatives romped home to a victory."

Mr Duncan Smith's friendship with the Bush administration began when he was spotted by officials in the Bush camp making speeches in the US which chimed with the theories of the Republican neocons. Condie Rice called him into her office, when he visited the White House this summer.

He does not want to overplay his closeness to the President. "Heck, he runs the world's most powerful nation. I don't pick up the phone and speak to the guy. But I think that relationship is good. To be honest, I like the guy. It's not fashionable to say that, I know. I think he has been misrepresented quite badly. It's often the case. Reagan was as well. They don't fit into a pigeon-hole."

He suddenly shows the pain of his own experience at Westminster, and you suddenly feel he wished he had been in American politics where a bit of simple, folksy home-cooking goes down well. "We have a parliamentary system and you find British politicians spend 15 to 20 years going through this debating culture, living close to the commentariat and moving through the system," he says.

"The American system is completely different. A character like George Bush can come completely out of the Washington base, and in a short period of time suddenly become an incredibly important figure. Because he doesn't have to sit there the whole time doing parliamentary debates, their speaking style is quite different, often more folksy, if you watch Reagan communicate or Clinton; Clinton would never have survived in a format like this."

He sweeps his hand around the oak-panelled Pugin room that belonged to Michael Howard before he won the leadership. "Someone once said that with Clinton you couldn't help it, even if you hated the guy, when you met him you felt good. Reagan did exactly the same. Bush in a funny way too. That skill is something perhaps British politicians don't cultivate enough.

"The point about Bush is that he's not this stupid moron that people represent here. This is a guy who was in the top half of his class when he left university. This is a guy who genuinely does understand facts and figures. If you listen to him talking about the world, I don't think he should be criticised for not understanding the nuances.

"The last time I saw him, actually the time before that, I had a long session with him, an hour together. We went round all the issues. I pride myself on being up to speed with most of them and I have to say I was impressed. He is a man who deals hugely in personal relationships. He will look you in the eye and decide whether he can do business with you. He has a very strong belief that he can understand somebody's qualities while being with them."

He believes it would be helpful if President Bush gave a few interviews over here, so people would understand. "I think to misrepresent him over here has been one of the terrible problems our media has had."

One gets a strong sense Mr Duncan Smith feels the same about his own treatment by the media. The former army officer, whose father was a Second World War Spitfire pilot, rose from shadow Defence secretary to become party leader after William Hague resigned in the wake of the disastrous 2001 general election.

Lord Tebbit complained that the Portillistas were after the leader, who had inherited his Tory seat, Chingford, in north-east London. They struck after the disastrous Tory conference in 2003 when Mr Duncan Smith told delegates not to "underestimate the determination of a quiet man". It was a line he recalled from a John Wayne movie. His critics said he was more Forrest Gump.

If anything, Mr Duncan Smith sees himself more in the role of James Stewart in the classic film Mr Smith Goes to Washington. He set up the Centre for Social Justice after visiting tenements in Glasgow, where drugs, crime and family breakdown were rife.

"I have set the centre up because I believe in compassionate conservativism in a British context. I really do believe that reconnecting with people in the worst communities is the way for my party to go. I feel it very strongly. When I come back here, I feel so strongly that we are out of touch with the people beyond Westminster Bridge."

"If people do what I have been doing, visiting these communities week in and week out, what you begin to realise is people's values out there seem to be fundamentally different now from the values of most of those who govern Britain."

He admits he did feel pain when Portillo supporters claimed that he paid his wife, Betsy, a secretarial allowance for work she did not do, subsequently found invalid. "I would be a liar if I said it wasn't tough, particularly on my wife," he says. "That was the most unfortunate part. But you get through these things. You get stronger when you overcome adversity."

He says he genuinely does not feel bitterness, and resists the temptation to tell his party, "I told you so", adding: "My problem is that I am somebody who believes in dusting things down and saying, 'Let's move on'. If you dwell too much on what might have been, you never break free."


Born Edinburgh, April 1954

Family Married to Betsy, two sons, two daughters

Education HMS Conway; university in Perugia

Career Joined Army in 1974; Sandhurst, officer Scots Guards, 1975. Served in Canada, Germany, Northern Ireland, Rhodesia. Worked for GEC-Marconi

Politics joined Tories 1981; fought Bradford West 1987; MP for Chingford 1992; shadow Social Security minister 1997-99; shadow Defence Secretary 1999-2001. Elected leader September, 2001; resigned October 2003