Friends voice dismay as IDS turns up the volume to an empty hall

Months after he was dumped, the Quiet Man returns to the public stage, report Francis Elliott and Ian Herbert
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Indy Politics

The last time Iain Duncan Smith played a gig in the North-west he received repeated standing ovations from a packed hall. Last night the Quiet Man turned up the volume once again. Unfortunately it was the only thing that did turn up. The public did not, and, to be precise (and with audiences of this size, precision is not difficult), a grand total of 67 of them paid to be present.

Mr Duncan Smith's debut on the lecture circuit in the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall last night comes just four months after his leader's speech to the Conservative conference in Blackpool.

Back on a public stage he proved, if nothing else, that he does not fear further public humiliation. "Show me a man without fear and I will show you a dangerous man," Mr Duncan Smith's told the unpacked hall.

His audience, a collection of journalists, Tories, and students of the grotesque, stared back at what they now had to assume was a dangerous man. And, dwarfed by the 533 unsold seats around them, they would have been struck by the uncomfortable thought that, for the next 50 minutes, they had nowhere to run. A dash for the exit would, after all, have been very conspicuous.

Their host was all too aware of their predicament, telling them: "You have probably got a thousand and one things to do. By the end of the night you may be saying: 'That was not one of them'".

A 62-year-old Tory dame leaving the hall did not demur. "He's not got the political stories," she sniffed. "I can't think he'll be as much of a draw as Denis Healey, who's here tomorrow."

The debut confirmed the worst fears of his friends, who are dismayed that his efforts to maintain a public profile will expose him to continuing ridicule. He does, after all, with his poor-selling novel and one-man, not-many-in-the-audience show, seem to be adept at providing the raw material.

"Iain needs the money but whether lecture tours are sensible is another question," said one last night.

The former leader is also being urged quietly to shelve plans for a think-tank on caring Conservatism. Tim Montgomerie, his former chief of staff, has told Mr Duncan Smith that he is unwilling to head the proposed outfit, which has not attracted any significant donors. One ally said: "It would be better to wait for a year and do the thing properly rather than for it to go off half-cocked without proper funding."

The former leader has been an infrequent visitor to the House of Commons since losing a vote of confidence last October and cuts a lonely figure when he does attend.

Even William Hague, a fellow former leader, appeared to avoid him when he turned up to vote on the recent crucial Commons division on top-up fees.

But although friends admit that he has been "down in the dumps" in recent months they say he has since recovered. Not least because he has a party to look forward to ­ 150 MPs and other senior Tories have accepted invitations to an event to be held in his honour later this month.

The number ­ around twice those who voted to keep him in his job ­ is a triumph of sorts since it confounds predictions that the event, hosted by Lord Ashcroft, would be boycotted by his former colleagues. Michael Howard, who replaced Mr Duncan Smith, is among those who plan to attend the party in Spencer House on 23 February to "give thanks" to the former Scots Guard, the only Tory leader in modern times denied a chance to lead his party into electoral battle.

Whether through guilt or nobler emotions, a number of figures suspected of having a leading hand in deposing him are also planning to attend.

"We talked about having a plotters' table but Iain was clear that he doesn't want the party spoiled by recriminations," said one figure involved in planning the event.

Another ray of sunshine in the gloom surrounding the former leader is that he has been asked by his publishers to write another book. His debut novel, The Devil's Tune, received poor reviews and is currently ranked 72,133 in an internet bookseller's sales ranking.

Despite the book's failure to catch the imagination of the British public he has been approached by a US-based film producer who is interested in the movie rights, according to friends.

* The former leader is said to have submitted "boxes and boxes" of evidence to Sir Philip Mawer showing that his wife was entitled to the £15,000 paid to her out of public funds. However, those with knowledge of the investigation by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner say his defence relies heavily on questioning the motives of the party officers who raised questions about the payments.