Look, boyo, if Heath could do it, why not IDS?

Click to follow

In the past few weeks people have begun to talk as if the Conservatives might just win the election - or, at any rate, do well enough to deprive Mr Tony Blair of his vast absolute majority. It has become the fashion to compare Mr Iain Duncan Smith to Sir Edward Heath rather than to that reliable old standby for these purposes, Mr Neil Kinnock.

The British public, so the theory went, would not have Mr Kinnock even if he were being given away with a cornflakes packet. They would not give him room in a drawer, still less clear a space for him on the mantelpiece. They did not see him as a prime ministerial figure, fit to be placed in charge of this great nation of ours. Besides, he was a Welshman.

True, another Welshman, David Lloyd George, had been voted into No 10 in 1918, two years after he had become Prime Minister by means of an internal coup. But times were different then. Perhaps there was less preju- dice about. For myself, I believe Labour lost in 1992 not so much because of Mr Kinnock as because of John Smith and his Shadow Budget - and because, in Mr John Major, the Conservatives had a new leader who was affable and apparently competent and who possessed the supreme merit of not being Mrs Margaret Thatcher.

This last lesson remains true today. We can leave aside Mr Kenneth Clarke, for whom the clock goes tick-tock and who is a victim of the Tory Curse of Europe. In default of Mr Clarke, the party would almost certainly do better under Mr Oliver Letwin, who is, as they say, "good on television", or under Mr Michael Howard, who does not possess such immediate appeal (or so everyone seems to agree) but is the only frontbench Tory that Mr Blair is apprehensive of in the House.

A solution of this kind, is, however, less popular than it was, say, six months ago. The Westminster Tories do not trust the party in the country - and with good reason. The reason was just as valid six months ago as it is today. But the Tories being a slow-witted lot, only now has it begun to sink in.

When Mr Duncan Smith was elected, the MPs narrowly wanted Mr Clarke and voted Mr Duncan Smith into second place, with Mr Michael Portillo third. Under the new rules, Mr Portillo then dropped into the outer space of the television studios, while Mr Clarke and Mr Duncan Smith went forward to the mass membership, inasmuch as they retain any significant mass at all. They duly chose as leader Mr Duncan Smith.

At the previous election, in 1997, the constituencies had possessed no say, except in an ill-defined advisory capacity. Then Mr William Hague came top of the MPs' poll with Mr Clarke second and Mr Hague duly became leader. Paradoxically, if the new rules (promulgated under Mr Hague's auspices) had applied then, and both Mr Hague and Mr Clarke had gone forward to the members, Mr Clarke would probably have won despite his Europeanism. But by 2001 the Saga contingent wanted a new holiday, an unfamiliar horizon, and voted in Mr Duncan Smith not so much because they knew what he was like as because they did not know the first thing about him except that he was a fresh face.

Similarly, a party election this year or in 2004 (it would probably be too late after that) would be by no means guaranteed to endorse the parliamentarians' first choice. The Tories might well end up with Mr David Davis as the popular selection, or even with Mr Hague being raised from the dead. Six months ago the theory was that the problem of mass democracy could be solved by changing the rules yet again, in order to present the party with one name only, which would then be endorsed by Stalinist - or maybe Blairite - acclamation. In practice this would have been to revert to the system whereby Mr Hague and his three immediate predecessors had been elected.

But the Conservatives could not keep changing the system. In any case, who would do the changing? Mr Hague changed it partly because he thought this would be to his own advantage. As things turned out, it had no effect: though my guess is that if he had hung on into 1998 he would have lost a vote of confidence and so started up the new machinery. But it is not in Mr Duncan Smith's interest to revert to the old system. Such a change could only imperil his own position. So the Tories seem to have decided to sit tight and make the best of things till the election.

The recent opinion polls have played a part in this resigned mood. And Sir Edward Heath is certainly a more comforting object of comparison than Mr Kinnock - or, for that matter, Mr Hague. It is too easily forgotten today how completely Harold Wilson once dominated British politics. There was an age of Wilson, from his election to the leadership of the Labour Party in 1963 to his resignation as Prime Minister in 1976; just as, before him, there had been ages of Attlee and Macmillan and, after him, of Thatcher and Blair. Wilson's spell of domestic dominance came to an end with the devaluation of 1967. The same year saw the D-Notice affair, to which I referred last week, and two years later the defeat of the government by its own supporters over his and Barbara Castle's trade-union proposals in In Place of Strife.

There are parallels today. By their nature they are no more than parallels; otherwise they would not be parallels but straight lines. There was the adventure in Iraq. There is the row with the BBC. Here, by the way, the committee system is once again in danger of bringing itself into disrepute, which is what happened with the committee on the Marconi scandal of 1912 and, earlier, with committees on disputed elections. These had to be handed over to the High Court because the Commons committees always divided on party lines. Then there is the Bill on hunting, where the Government was defeated by its own side, accepted the defeat but - if Mr Blair at Prime Minister's Questions is any guide - is unwilling to use the Parliament Acts to force the measure past the Lords.

There is a further parallel. Mr Heath, as he used to be, was widely thought to be not up to the job. Worse: he was supposed to be remote, out-of-touch. For did he not play the organ? And where was his wife? It was with a shout of relief that Central Office discovered his interest in sailing and, by various means, exalted this hobby to heroic stature. At the 1970 election no one gave him a chance. By comparison, Mr Duncan Smith, though not as clever - in fact not clever at all - is rather more promising material, except that he is very bald.