It hardly seems possible that, as the Prime Minister arrives in Laeken for the regular year-end European summit, there has been no reaction to the trip from Iain Duncan Smith. While the rest of Europe finalises plans for the euro in just three weeks' time, the issue seems to be barely remarked on by the Tories. Yet just four months ago, the leadership race between Mr Duncan Smith and Ken Clarke threatened to define Tories, once again, only by their contradictory attitudes to Europe and the single currency.
Europe has divided Tories for over a decade, but perhaps it is the greatest achievement of Mr Duncan Smith's 13 weeks in his new post that the party now hardly mentions the subject in public. Euro-obsessive Bill Cash has been humoured with a minor job in the Shadow Cabinet, and we hardly see him these days. Ken Clarke has returned, presumably, to selling cigarettes, and Michael Portillo has pretty much disappeared.
To pass favourable judgement on the Tory party, exactly three months on from Mr Duncan Smith's victory, on the basis that it is more likely to succeed by saying nothing on the great issues of the day is hardly a ringing endorsement. On the other hand, a period of silence on Europe, Clause 28 and all the other shibboleths that caused so much damage to William Hague's regime has been a notable achievement for a party that once seemed obsessed with such matters to the exclusion of all else.
No mainstream British party leader in modern times has taken over a worse inheritance and it is doubtful whether any of Mr Duncan Smith's rivals, Portillo, Ancram, Clarke or Davis, would have done much better. Most of the public have long ago stopped listening to the Conservative Party. It still talks to itself, and it will be some time before it is anywhere near ready to engage with the voters.
It will be a long haul, but the past three months have not been wasted. Aided by a reborn Michael Howard as shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin as shadow Home Secretary, and David Davis as party chairman, the new leader has stopped the party digging itself deeper into more holes. He has ended, at least momentarily, some of the more distracting skirmishes in the Tories' civil war, thereby removing the party from the headlines.
The events of 11 September unwittingly gave the new leader a breathing space to establish himself while removing the party from the nation's consciousness. Mr Duncan Smith speculated that the public will have formed a view about him after three months. Understatement seems to be his defining characteristic: by and large the public have no opinion whatsoever about him. But at least this is a considerable advance on their negative impressions of his predecessor.
Only in the House of Commons, which nobody watches, is there any sense of an impression being formed about the new leader. The view there is mixed, and he has certainly not yet mastered the art of challenging Tony Blair during the weekly skirmishes at Prime Minister's Questions. Most Tory MPs just want him to get through the ordeal without his voice cracking up. The perpetual frog in the throat makes me shudder as I am reminded of the fate of John Moore, once a social security minister and rising star in Mrs Thatcher's Cabinet, who finally lost her (and his own) confidence when he appeared unable to use his voice at the dispatch box.
Someone is going to have to deal properly with Mr Duncan Smith's voice – possibly a throat specialist. Part of the problem is clearly nerves, but I suspect voice strain, due to excessive use these past six months, is the main trouble. Mr Duncan Smith was sent to 100 constituencies during the general election and then charged around the country during the leadership race. The voice is knackered, but it may be repaired by silence during the Christmas recess.
Of course William Hague had no such problems. He generally scored well at the weekly jousts. Some say good performances in the Commons are a requisite for an effective Opposition leader, but in Mr Hague's case they were certainly not sufficient. Critics say that if Mr Duncan Smith cannot even perform this task then he has no hope in any of his other objectives. I disagree. Mr Hague's brilliant performances in the Commons counted for little with the voters. But Mr Duncan Smith must do better.
On clearing the Tory remains following the carnage on election day, there is a more solid Duncan Smith story to tell. Many of the previous policies, which were so contradictory, have been binned – although there is nothing yet to replace them. Frankly, the longer the party can get away with no published policies the better. Most significant has been Michael Howard's decision to put public services ahead of tax cuts. This should not be mistaken as implying that the Tories will no longer be the party of low taxation. At the very moment that the Thatcher consensus between Labour and the Tories on low taxation may be about to be broken, Mr Howard will surely want to reserve his position against higher taxes.
Meanwhile, internal housekeeping matters are occupying the talented Mr Davis, who some mischievously think has his own eye on the leadership. True, he is the obvious successor if Mr Duncan Smith fails, but he has displayed nothing but total loyalty for his boss. He is busying himself with trying to alter the tone of the party. The recent appointment of Gillian Shephard as vice-chairman for candidates should mean an end to "Tory Boy" identikits and a serious prospect of women candidates being selected in winnable seats. Mrs Shephard is a persuasive figure, and likely to use her feminine wiles against recalcitrant constituencies.
It is clear that there will be no whizz-bang, "Clause Four" style initiatives of the kind that characterised Mr Blair's early leadership. Mr Duncan Smith is more like Clement Attlee, Labour's quiet post-war prime minister, working by stealth to marginalise the loony extremists which have so damaged the party in recent years. The appointment of several "inclusive Portillistas" in Central Office shows a willingness to build bridges. The question is whether the rest of us have noticed, and whether we care. Ultimately, the public will not scrutinise the Tory party closely until they get fed up with Mr Blair. That day will eventually dawn. Will Mr Duncan Smith be ready, or still there, when it does?Reuse content