You can't help feeling some sympathy with Iain Duncan Smith as he fights for his political life today. The campaign against him could hardly be less heroic. A couple of constituency chairmen have honourably questioned the leadership in public - with the immediate result that one was threatened yesterday with removal from the candidates' list. The former minister John Maples bravely implied at a meeting attended by a large range of party activists on Tuesday that the leadership had to take some of the blame for the party's polls ratings, consistently inferior to those enjoyed - say - by Labour in opposition during the late 1980s and 1990s, and for the abject defeat in Brent East.
But for the most part, those willing his replacement are adept at exploiting to the limit the conventions of political journalism by sheltering behind a protective anonymity. We know that the odd disgruntled senior Portillista has come to the conclusion that anyone would be better than the present leader. We know, too, that from one or two supporters of David Davis there is talk of the desirability of regime change vigorous enough, if care is not taken, to threaten their man (who after all is a senior serving member of the Shadow Cabinet) with a backlash if and when it comes to the contest they would like to see. But on the whole this remains a campaign in which there are very few visible targets for the newly macho Duncan Smith to shoot at.
That isn't to pretend for a moment that these are the only sources of complaints. Or that they do not reflect a very much wider discontent among the party which even a Tory whip admitted bluntly yesterday was all but impossible to contain. Far from it. But it does provide a little comfort for the beleaguered leader. The number of MPs on all sides who would like to see Duncan Smith go - many of whom are prepared to say so to journalists provided they are not quoted by name - goes way beyond the mere 25 needed to trigger a no confidence vote. But that doesn't mean that even 25, when it comes to the crunch, will be prepared to sign their names on the lethal list, even under the conditions of anonymity which the rules bizarrely allow. One MP expecting to meet colleagues next week to consider whether the names can be found, yesterday put the chances at not hugely better than 50-50 in favour.
So that's one glimmer of hope for the leader. Another is that the febrile state of the party is such that the plotters are perilously close to crossing the line beyond which they will have to act soon - over the next few weeks - or not at all, if they are not to be exposed as cowards. And the third is the lack - so far - of a clear single candidate behind whom the deep disenchantment can reliably coalesce.
There is, for example, quite a lot of common-sense talk about Michael Howard and his ability, as a highly competent former cabinet minister, to command the kind of respect, not least from the press, that so woefully eluded William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. No doubt he would face an instant hostile tour of the television studios by his arch-enemy Anne Widdecombe in her new-found role as semi-detached Tory talk-show celeb. No doubt, too, he hasn't got the box-office appeal to win a general election. But as an able professional, with a proven ability to stand up to both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, he might at least stop the rot.
What's much less clear is whether all the other pretenders would be prepared to subordinate their own ambitions to give him a clear run in the parliamentary ballot. Would David Davis, for example, forfeit the opportunity, however uncertain, of coming second among MPs when there is a reasonable chance that he might actually win in the run-off in a ballot of the voluntary party which delivered Duncan Smith his victory over Ken Clarke in 2001? But sympathy and encouragement can only go so far. For the present crisis raises larger questions about the leader and his party than mere tactics.
There was a revealing little moment earlier this week at a fringe meeting conversation between Charles Moore, the just-departed editor of The Daily Telegraph, and Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary and one of the more user-friendly white hopes of the Tory right. Letwin had eloquently contrasted New Labour deceitfulness with Duncan Smith's "what you see is what you get" trustworthiness. But what you see isn't what you get. With commendable candour Letwin went on to tell the audience he imagined that they and he were most engaged in British politics by the same issues - European and constitutional. What they had to realise however was that these were not the issues that engaged the floating voters. Which was why they had to de-emphasise them at the expense of public services.
This goes to the heart of a central problem for the Tories. Several members of the Shadow Cabinet - David Willetts, Damian Green, Tim Yeo spring instantly to mind - care about public services and social policy much more than they do about Europe. But for several, perhaps a majority and certainly including the leader, the issue of protecting British sovereignty in the face of what they continually see as encroachment without limit from Brussels is what truly excites them about politics.
There is nothing whatever dishonourable in itself about this. Deep Euroscepticism represents a definite strand of British public opinion. And, goodness knows, there is enough to complain about in the EU. But the sensible realisation that Europe is not what most excites a majority of the electorate has produced a destructive and inevitable tension in the pitch to the country by the clique currently running the party.
Of course its hostility to Europe, along with its unquestioning right-or-wrong Atlanticism, has surfaced this week - including in Michael Ancram's tub thumping call yesterday for a referendum on a new European treaty, one that pre-empted the outcome of negotiations by insisting on oppose the treaty before it has even been negotiated. But for the most part it is, as Letwin candidly indicated, suppressed if not actually concealed. In the interests only of electoralism, the possible consequence of withdrawal from the EU which flows from this policy is never made explicit.
This has consequences. The failure openly to resolve the issue of Europe within the party, as chronic as it is now little discussed, is what has deprived it twice before - and will almost certainly do so again - of the sort of leadership that would truly unite Tory left and right and start winning back the centre ground. More immediately, it undermines the Duncan Smith claim to transparency and trust before the electorate.
Maybe, just maybe, Iain Duncan Smith can save his leadership with a stunningly successful speech today - though even that is open to doubt. What the man who became famous tormenting John Major can't do is resolve the contradiction that still hobbles the party's appeal to those floating voters Oliver Letwin is rightly so worried about.Reuse content