Requiem for the quiet man: a fatal cocktail of dismal faults and failures

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Indy Politics

With a brief statement last night Sir Michael Spicer ended Iain Duncan Smith's tenure as Tory leader. But the seeds of his spectacular downfall had been sown months before.

A fatal cocktail of disloyalty, poor management and bad politics led to an astonishing coup against the first Conservative leader to be elected by the party rank and file. Despite intense efforts to reformulate party policy and neutralise the divisive issue of Europe, Mr Duncan Smith ultimately floundered because he never won the support or respect of the parliamentary party.

Faced with a leader who could not land blows on Tony Blair in the Commons and was never an attractive television performer, Tory MPs were unwilling to forgive a series of lapses of judgement. They were also loath to lend blind loyalty to a man whose record of rebellion against John Major's government had left many festering wounds.

Mr Duncan Smith first made a disastrous mistake in July 2002 when he demoted David Davis from the Tory chairmanship while Mr Davis was on holiday in Florida, turninga crucial ally into a powerful enemy and a focus for dissent. Three months later, in Bournemouth, sniping against his leadership was growing rapidly in the face of gloomy opinion poll ratings. He failed to win over the doubters with his ill-judged "quiet man" speech, which opened him up to weekly ridicule from Labour backbenchers and the media

The fault line between Tory traditionalists and modernisers cracked open in November over the issue of gay adoption, when John Bercow resigned from the front bench. The insurrection prompted the extraordinary appeal by Mr Duncan Smith for the party to "unite or die". It failed to calm the turbulence, leaving the Tory leader stumbling from disaster to disaster.

In February, he sacked Mark MacGregor as Tory chief executive, installing a right-wing ally, Barry Legg, against the wishes of the party's ruling board. Three months later, he was forced to back down and Mr Legg stepped down. It was just one of a series of personnel crises at Central Office.

A better than expected performance in May's local government elections briefly silenced talk of a backbench putsch. But the issue of his leadership was back centre-stage as Tories gathered in Blackpool for their annual conference. Reports of intrigue and backbiting were aggravated by allegations, still being investigated by parliamentary watchdogs, that Mr Duncan Smith overpaid his wife for work in his office.

The furore that followed overshadowed a series of policy announcements. Matters finally came to a head last week when rebels threatened to gather the 25 signatures needed for aleadership challenge.

Ironically, as Mr Duncan Smith approached his final 36 hours in the job he seemed to gain some of the leadership skills that had eluded him during more than two years at the helm. But his audacious "back me or sack me" challenge failed to quell the uprising.

Throughout the morning yesterday, he was in his Commons rooms, seeing a steady stream of backbenchers, but his leadership was already in its death throes. Just before noon, he strode into the Commons chamber.

The Tory leader looked uneasy as he sat on the edge of the green leather bench, ringed by potential leadership candidates, a hostile backbench behind him, facing ranks of jeering Labour MPs.

As he sat down, a smiling Kenneth Clarke appeared at the back of the Tory benches joking with Derek Conway, the former whip whose letter asking for a vote of confidence was the first step in this week's drama. There was little of the usual post mortem inquiry, with some Tory backbenchers saying the true test would come in two hours before the 1922 Committee of MPs.

After lunch, the focus switched to the Committee corridor that runs the length of the Palace of Westminster. Journalists and a gaggle of Tory peers gathered as Tory MPs marched into Committee Room 14 to hear their leader make a last appeal for loyalty. A hush descended when Mr Duncan Smith arrived. Asked if he was confident, he replied: "Confident? I have never been anything else."

After his speech, loyalists queued up to praise Mr Duncan Smith. But John Greenway, one of those calling for a confidence vote, said: "The content was fine. It was robust, forthright, typical Iain, that's the problem. There was no charisma. Nothing special." Another dismissed it as "extremely pedestrian".

The backbencher George Osborne carried in a large black metal ballot box just after 3pm. Piles of ballots were laid out. Each read: "I have confidence in Iain Duncan Smith as the leader of the Conservative Party". Boxes asked MPs to vote yes or no. After 12 minutes, Mr Duncan Smith swept in. Afterwards he said: "I voted for myself."

Few MPs admitted giving him the thumbs-down. The exceptions included Crispin Blunt, who told MPs crunching the numbers for Mr Duncan Smith: "I voted for the person I think has the best chance of winning the next election."

At 6.05pm, as the Somerset MP Adrian Flook became the final Tory to vote, Mr Duncan Smith's supporters remained optimistic their man could still snatch an against-the-odds victory. Their hopes crumbled to dust less than an hour later.

The statement

This is the full text of Iain Duncan Smith's statement last night:

"Good evening. We've had a lot of words over the last few days and I have to tell you now is not the time for many more.

"The parliamentary party has spoken, the announcement has been made, and I will stand down as leader when a successor has finally been chosen.

"I will give that leader my absolute loyalty and support, whoever it is.

"I will not publicly choose, however, between the candidates in this forthcoming election.

"But I am going to defend, with vigour, the policies that my Shadow Cabinet and I have developed over the last two years.

"Although I will not now be the prime minister of the first Conservative government of the 21st century, I believe I have provided a serious and strong policy agenda for that government.

"A policy agenda designed by all of us to improve the quality of life for everyone in our country. To give people better schools, better health care, safer streets, security in retirement and value for taxpayers' money; key themes that have been advanced throughout that policy-making process.

"I am particularly sorry that I will not have the opportunity to fulfil my promise to people in some of the poorest communities I have visited up and down the land.

"But I will not cease to be their champion for them, and loyally, from the back benches.

"I will fight, for them, for social justice, throughout my time in Parliament.

"My deepest thanks to my colleagues in my Shadow Cabinet and my frontbench team, many of whom go unsung, my parliamentary colleagues and of course all the staff of Central Office who work untiringly, unceasingly, often without the thanks that they deserve.

"And most of all, to the voluntary party whose hard work and dedication put all of us here into this House of Commons and enabled me to become this party's first fully elected leader.

"But may I say, most of all, my thanks to Betsy and my family, whose support in the last two years has been unfailing.

"It has been an immense honour to lead this great party and to be the first fully elected leader by the voluntary party and the full membership.

"I profoundly hope that the next leader to be elected in that manner will also be the next prime minister.

"Thank you very much indeed."

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