Inquiry will expose party's conflicts

Iain Duncan Smith is fighting for his survival as Opposition leader on two separate fronts. He is obliged to defend himself against charges that he paid his wife for secretarial work she didn't do, just as the political ferment against him in the Tory party reaches a new climax.

On one level the announcement by Sir Philip Mawer that he is to open a formal investigation into the charges is much less sensational than the headlines it has generated suggest. No one in Westminster expected Sir Philip to dismiss as too frivolous to examine the charges made by as serious and experienced a journalist as Michael Crick.

And as Sir Philip himself said, the existence of the investigation does not imply he has taken a view as to guilt or innocence.

Instead the inquiry introduces an unpredictable new element into the so-far only indirectly related groundswell of dissent among Tory MPs about his leadership.

At the very least the inquiry is likely to expose some of the undercurrents of conflict at Conservative Central Office from which the original charges appear to have emanated. If Sir Philip were to find against Mr Duncan Smith, it would probably do serious, perhaps fatal, damage to his reputation, given the Tory leader's prominence - even though the practice of paying MPs' wives from public money is widespread.

If the backbenchers who sit on the Standards and Privileges Committee were to accept Sir Philip's recommendation and propose a penalty (not a foregone conclusion) how Mr Duncan Smith could survive is hard to see.

On the other hand, if he is exonerated, it's possible his position could be strengthened, especially if the anonymous figures among the critics who have fuelled the charges fail to come forward, as Sir Philip warned yesterday they would have to do.

The most surreal aspect of the crisis, however, is that the intrigue and gossip among MPs over Mr Duncan Smith's leadership continued yesterday without much attention being paid to the investigation. One prominent backbencher said the chances of finding the 25 names needed to trigger a confidence vote had risen from less than 50-50 to slightly more than 50-50.

But two problems still confront the critics. One is that whatever doubts MPs have about the Tory leader's speech to last week's party conference in Blackpool, it appears to have gone down well with many of the party faithful, provoking some constituency chairmen to urge dissident MPs to proceed with caution. The other is the difficulty of agreeing an alternative candidate. If a majority of plotters favoured Michael Howard, that would not necessarily stop David Davis from standing, given that he might beat Mr Howard in a run-off among party members.

Sir Philip's investigation is likely to take several weeks. If the momentum for a leadership challenge is not to peter out, it will probably have to produce a decisive move to a confidence vote before then. If it doesn't, then the threat might not come back for many months, if at all before the election. Unless of course, Mr Duncan Smith falls foul of Sir Philip.

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