After a friend of mine had left Wales, Lady Megan Lloyd George asked him how he was getting on with the English. All right, he replied, or so he supposed.
"Funny people," she mused. "You know, all that getting up and then sitting down again."
Lady Megan was reflecting on the country's social habits, at any rate in its upper reaches, rather than on its way of listening to speeches. Even so, she would have been puzzled by the response to Mr Iain Duncan Smith's speech. Her father would have been even more mystified. He would have deplored a standing ovation every three and a half minutes, which is what Mr Duncan Smith received, as being destructive of the Lloyd George flow, besides being hard on the joints and muscles of the more elderly members of the congregation.
This last remains a consideration, despite the boasts of Mr Duncan Smith and others, for the Tories are not getting any younger. Mr Duncan Smith, however, has no flow to destroy. Fluency is not his forte. The developed argument is not his trade. As we are told often enough, he is not a natural orator. But then, who is - or was? Among leading Conservatives since 1945, there are only Winston Churchill, Iain Macleod, Quintin Hogg, Michael Heseltine and Enoch Powell - and Powell was more an extraordinarily forceful speaker than an orator.
Mr Duncan Smith's effort contained a theft not only from Hugh Gaitskell at Scarborough in 1960, with his "fight, fight and fight again", which most people spotted, but also from Macleod at Blackpool in the very same arena in 1963. The sentence was: "We have work to do." What Macleod said was:
"The Liberals may dream their dreams. The Socialists (said in a tone of hatred) may scheme their schemes. We have work to do."
This demonstrates the difference between a proper speaker and someone who has been taught to make a speech over the summer holidays. For some reason, actors are no good at depicting politicians or barristers. There are a few exceptions, such as Robert Donat in The Winslow Boy, but there are not many of them. Mr Duncan Smith gave the impression not so much of a third-rate actor - for there is no need for us to insult him as he insulted Mr Charles Kennedy and Mr Tony Blair - as of an ordinary, competent thespian who had attended his rehearsals, learnt his lines and done as he was told by his producer.
At the same time, however, there is no need, either, for us to follow the Prig Press's editorials on Friday morning. There is a complicity between Fleet Street and Westminster about the drinking habits of politicians. From my observation, Mr Kennedy's consumption is moderation itself compared to that of the heroic figures of the past, whose habits have been described previously in this column.
Mr Duncan Smith should have a care. Even in an age which combines puritanism with excess, politicians who are drinkers tend to be popular figures. Churchill was the heaviest-drinking Prime Minister of modern times, though he was closely rivalled, and possibly on occasion excelled, by Harold Wilson, who won four elections out of five. Margaret Thatcher used to enjoy a late-night glass of whisky, perhaps several. And Kenneth Clarke is the only Tory who might conceivably win the election for his party, though he is highly unlikely to be chosen as leader.
As for Mr Blair, we should perhaps cease being oversensitive on his behalf. Mr Blair is well able to look after himself. My mother taught me that the word "liar" was not used in polite society, a maxim I have tried to follow in life. But Mr Duncan Smith, despite his exalted connections by marriage, can hardly be said to move in polite society. He is the leader of a party whose members, as the week's events showed, have become increasingly xenophobic; certainly no less so. There is no high-minded reason for him to try to change them except that of doing better in the polls. Besides, he shares their views.
The argument that he was somehow in breach of the constitution by anticipating Lord Hutton's report does not bear serious examination. That is what the Government wants us all to refrain from doing. There is not the slightest reason to comply. We have been able to read the evidence which the learned judge heard. Some of us even managed to listen to it, or some of it. We are fully entitled to arrive at our own conclusions and so is Mr Duncan Smith.
The notion that the party has become, if anything, even more extreme is not one which the party is keen to encourage. On the whole, the press has been happy to go along with the party. But let us consider not only the response to Mr Duncan Smith's speech but some of the other ideas which were floating around last week.
There was, for example, Mr Oliver Letwin's enthusiastically received scheme for expelling asylum-seekers to some remote island. Mr Letwin gets a good press because he gives the appearance of a certain rationality and is reasonably polite. He is also one of the authors of the poll tax. His trouble is that he is a Cambridge Tory tomfool, educated out of his wits. His island or islands might perhaps be called The Letwins, eventually producing a cricket team which would be capable of beating England, just as Australia does.
The Chief Whip, Mr David Maclean, has been touring the television studios threatening to read the Incitement to Disaffection Act to those MPs - there have to be 25 of them - who may be tempted to write to the chairman of the 1922 Committee, Sir Michael Spicer, requisitioning a vote of confidence in Mr Duncan Smith. No one has yet asked whether this is a legitimate part of Mr Maclean's job. In 1974-75, the officers of the 1922 Committee worked actively and improperly against Edward Heath. In 1990, the Chief Whip, Tim Renton, issued instructions that the Whips were to adopt a position of neutrality in the war of the Thatcher succession.
The reason I think the war of the Duncan Smith succession will not emerge from the planning stage is that the dissentients cannot guarantee the succession for anyone, even if they could agree on who he or she should be. Unless the rules are changed, the sole power of the parliamentary party is to present two new candidates to the members. With the mass party in their present mood, the more xenophobic the candidate, the better they would like him or, improbably, her - just as they preferred Mr Duncan Smith to Mr Clarke two years ago. Mr Clarke would again be second, if that. Mr David Davis would probably beat Mr Michael Howard, who now counts as a moderate. So much for any new, nicer Conservative Party!Reuse content