Tory party conferences usually have an extra-terrestrial dimension. Put 4,000 Tory activists in the same halls and bars for four days, and they will gradually lose contact with earth, while creating their own temporary planet. Buoyed up by one another's enthusiasm and rounds of drinks, they will convince themselves that all is well with the party, and that any suggestion to the contrary is a vile falsehood, no doubt emanating from the BBC.
This is not to say that there are no dissidents. But in the past, Tory dissent had been a fringe activity, clearly segregated from the main body of the kirk. The anti-Thatcher Wets in the early 1980s, the anti-Major Europhobes in the early 1990s, Ken Clarke and his fellow Euro-fanatics in the early 2000s - they would all make their speeches in minor hotels some distance from the principal meeting places. But there was usually a ritual element to such gatherings. The protests did not deflect the vast mass of the faithful from their loyalty, or their obedience.
Not any more. This was the strangest Tory conference ever. Dissidence was neither covert nor marginalised. It proclaimed itself all over the conference centre and the Imperial Hotel. Shadow cabinet members, MPs, Central Office officials, constituency chairmen: they were coming up to journalists, including BBC journalists, to vociferate their dissatisfaction with IDS. Not all of them thought that he should be disposed of. Some lamented the absence of an obvious alternative; others, the complexity of the process necessary to secure his removal. But large numbers of serious Tories, including quite a few who voted for IDS, now believe that any of the likely alternatives would be an improvement.
I did find IDS supporters; at least 10 of them. But I could not help noting the gritted-teeth desperation with which most of them expressed their views. I concluded that the majority were only sticking with IDS because it would be so messy to get rid of him.
Nor did his speech change anything. I thought that it was much the worst leader's speech in living memory. The quiet man may have turned up the volume, but what emerged was tinny, strutting and anxious, devoid alike of intellectual content and moral authority. It was a feeble mixture of self-assertion and self-pity. There is no point in making more noise if you merely send everyone's fingers to their ears.
The attempts to orchestrate the crowd were equally unconvincing. IDS loyalists positioned themselves around the hall, ready to jump up at the pre-arranged standing-ovation points, relying on group dynamics and the emotion of the moment to bring the rest of the representatives to their feet. The result was a cross between a Chinese Communist Party conference during the cultural revolution and the barmy army, those over-refreshed England cricket supporters who infest Test matches with chanting and Mexican waves. The standing ovation stratagem was born of despair, not strength.
It will not have discouraged the mutineers. David Davis's supporters are the best organised. Most of his campaign team from 2001 is still in being, ready to move into action as soon as he gives the signal. Only one consideration is deterring Mr Davis. In modern Tory history, he who wields the dagger never wears the crown. Mr Davis has no intention of being another Michael Heseltine, who struck down Mrs Thatcher and made John Major Prime Minister. Mr Davis is a vulture, waiting for some other predator to provide him with his feast.
Tim Yeo may have volunteered. In a large field, he won the week's award for the most publicly disloyal senior Tory. He, too, is clearly preparing a leadership bid, less deterred than Mr Davis by the taint of assassin's bloodstains.
To deal with the bloodstain problem, it was suggested to a senior member of the Davis team that Mr Davis, Mr Yeo and Liam Fox, another hopeful, should resign simultaneously in order to precipitate IDS's resignation without too much odium attaching to any one of them. "That wouldn't do any good,'' said the Davisite. "Iain would not resign. He'd just say that this was another strategic blunder by the Liberals.''
There was another significant development during the week. Sir Michael Spicer, the chairman of the 1922 Committee - the Tory backbenchers' forum - would take charge of any leadership election. The first stage would be a vote of confidence in the leader, precipitated by 25 requests from Tory MPs. Under the current rules, their names remain secret. Sir Michael is to consult lawyers, to enquire what would happen if IDS demanded to see the names. It seems unlikely that Sir Michael would take this step unless he thought that it would shortly become relevant.
This weekend, Iain Duncan Smith is still the leader of the Conservative Party. But he is a leader without authority who has forfeited the respect of most of his colleagues, and who is in no position to appeal to the electorate. If the Tory party thinks so little of him, why should the voters believe that he is a potential premier?
As the plotters are now committed so deeply, a leadership challenge seems inevitable, barring a last-minute epidemic of cowardice. But that would merely destroy IDS's opponents' credibility, without restoring his own. If he does carry on, he will be political carrion.Reuse content