He's a queer fish, if ever there was one

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The Independent Online

Since democracy was brought to the Conservatives 38 years ago, they have invariably chosen as their leader the queer fish in preference to the candidate who was a more or less recognisable member of the human race. They could have had Reginald Maudling, William Whitelaw, Michael Heseltine or Douglas Hurd, and Kenneth Clarke. Indeed, under the old system, when leaders simply appeared, they almost certainly would have had them, with Hurd being preferred to Heseltine in 1990. Instead they chose Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith.

Sir Edward and Mr Major both won elections unexpectedly. But neither is likely to go down among the outstanding or even the moderately competent Prime Ministers of the last or, for that matter, of any other century. Mr Hague retired hurt, so becoming the only Conservative leader of the 20th century except Austen Chamberlain to fail to reach No 10.

The reputation of the odd birds depends entirely on Lady Thatcher, the oddest of creatures, not least because she was a woman, for her equivalent (Barbara Castle, say) would never have been chosen by the Labour Party. She won all three of her elections but destroyed England in the process. She was as successful as she was electorally not only because Labour went mad for a period but also because the forces of opposition were split by the formation of the SDP. She owed at least as much to Roy Jenkins as she did to Tony Benn.

By comparison, the rest have been a poor lot. The latest of them is Mr Duncan Smith. While his predecessors since 1965 had been the choice of the Conservative MPs, he was chosen by the mass party, if you can call it that any longer. The MPs would have preferred Mr Clarke, though in 1997 they had chosen Mr Hague with Mr Clarke behind him. Mr Hague, strange as he was, was nevertheless the product of conventional Tory politics.

His successor is the queerest of fish. Like Disraeli - though without any of Disraeli's qualities - he is an adventurer. His name is not Duncan Smith but Smith. His father was Group Captain Duncan Smith, a gallant RAF pilot whose son went to a school intended primarily for entrants into the merchant navy. Mr Duncan Smith later attended an English-language school in Perugia which he mendaciously claimed was the university there.

This son of an Air Force officer who had attended a naval school then did six years in the Scots Guards, where he attained the rank of Captain, having first gone to Sandhurst. Such figures were common enough in the decades following the last war. They were to be found in the clubs and pubs of London north of Oxford Street, west of the Tottenham Court Road and south of the Marylebone Road and they often claimed some connection with the motor trade.

"Has the captain been in, George?"

"Not yet, sir. He generally has a couple across the road before joining us here."

On arrival, the captain would often try to borrow a small sum of money. Mr Duncan Smith is now accused of taking a larger amount from the taxpayer by claiming that his wife Betsy was his secretary, which she was not, or not at the times specified. About the merits of this charge I have no idea, except that its maker, Mr Michael Crick, possesses the highest reputation among his colleagues and invariably has evidence to hand.

He is not, we may be sure, persecuting Mr Duncan Smith's wife, as the Conservative leader alleged in a display of, I would judge, largely factitious indignation last week. If he is persecuting anyone, it is the BBC, which refused to broadcast his charge originally. In any case, this is very much a matter of pots and kettles, for the Conservatives have shown little compunction about attacking Cherie, Mrs Tony Blair, when it suits their purposes to do so.

We may also be sure that Mr Duncan Smith will receive a fair hearing from the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, Sir Philip Mawer. I was in a minority of one among journalists in not regretting the enforced departure of his predecessor, Ms Elizabeth Filkin. She seemed to me to be operating only too often as a one-woman court of morals.

For instance, the precise nature of the dealings between Mr Peter Mandelson and the Britannia Building Society was nothing whatever to do with her. It was wholly a matter for the society, which could have availed itself of the civil or criminal law. It chose not to do so. Indeed, it went out of its way to express its confidence in Mr Mandelson. There were those who saw Ms Filkin as Ms Valiant-for-Truth; to me, she was more the Witchfinder-General.

Sir Philip is not like this. The assumption at Westminster, on all sides, is that the captain will emerge, not perhaps without a stain on his Guards tie, but as having made, at most, an error of judgement. This phrase is, admittedly, civil-service-speak for something pretty dreadful. But it will be enough to allow Mr Duncan Smith to carry on. If Mr Michael Trend can carry on till the next election having made false expenses claims, there does not seem any good reason not to allow Mr Duncan Smith to do likewise.

We are, however, considering Mr Duncan Smith as leader of the Conservative Party rather than as member for Chingford. About his position as leader there is less agreement. What is clear is that he has a period of respite. But it would be vain to expect the Tories to spend this time discussing the Rugby World Cup or even less serious matters. They will be talking about the leadership. Indeed, it is arguable that Sir Philip's investigation will only make the mood more febrile still, whatever his conclusions may turn out to be.

There was a strange leading article in Thursday's Guardian confidently asserting that it was aberrant, almost unprecedented, for the Conservatives to change leaders in opposition. Well, since 1965 alone they have thrown out Alec Douglas-Home and Edward Heath; while John Major and William Hague jumped first. Among Prime Ministers, since 1940 they have disposed of Neville Chamberlain, Anthony Eden and Margaret Thatcher. Replacing Mr Duncan Smith, far from being eccentric, would be par for the Conservative course.

If there is, to use the 19th-century word, a "hum", it is now for Mr Michael Howard. But the new rules do not provide for a coronation: two candidates have to be presented to the party. It would, I suppose, be possible for one of them to withdraw. I cannot see Mr David Davis dropping out in favour of Mr Howard.