Philip Hensher: That indefinable longing for blankness of being

'What admirers of Iain Duncan Smith desire is revealed inadvertently in their torrent of negatives'
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The Independent Online

At a certain point in the downward cycle of despair, a longing for nothingness starts to set in. When nothing seems to be going right for you, then nothingness also starts to seem like an attractive state of mind to be in. The anorexic starts to long for any thoughts at all that are not concerned with food; the abandoned lover wants to stop thinking about his own misery; the debtor starts to yearn for bankruptcy, or even prison.

When things get really bad, what is tempting is not starting again, in some different mode, but just going to a place where everything will just go away, and you will be left alone in a state of ecstatic, unthinking blankness. At worst, you want to cease upon the midnight with no pain. At best, you irrationally want to embrace a condition of perfect, empty, undefined bliss, whose only defining characteristic is that it is utterly unlike the mess you are in.

That, at any rate, is pretty well the only explanation for the current state of half the Tory party, and in particular for the curious, ecstatic, worshipping tone of Mr Iain Duncan Smith's admirers. One first noticed there was something pretty odd going on here when he started being referred to in print as IDS, making him sound more like a syndrome than a human being. He is, of course, just as human as anyone else, but what is very strange is that his admirers praise him for being nothing. They have reached the stage in the downward cycle where what they most fervently long for is a quiet absence at the head of their party, and the rhetoric of negatives seems soothing, reassuring, and right.

A very rum profile of him in the Telegraph this week might have been read as a hatchet job, indeed, without the knowledge of this odd, depressive desire. What sort of family does he have? "They're not grand," a friend says. "They have never had a nanny; they have no country manor." His mother's family are "not your average Milton Keynes household". IDS is "never allowed to get above himself," though he "did not choose a wife who had ambitions in the world of work."

His sexual relations are wonderfully negative, too: "He does not patronise the women he knows, nor does he talk to men in preference." A female friend negatively confirms this: "He's not the barking military man around children you might expect, either."

Well, what is he like? We know what his job is, after all, but "I don't know any other politician like that," says another friend. Like what? "Like an ordinary person." There must be some funny stories, but no. "I wish I could give you some anecdotes, but I can't." He hasn't got any hair, "he is not a typical Sloane... he did not go to a public school." On not leaving the public school, he "conceived no particular passion for a sea-going life". In the army, he missed the Falklands war, but it was not his fault.

He is not very intelligent; he doesn't speak Italian any more, though "those in other camps do not condemn him as stupid". All the same, "he cannot talk in quotable phrases," and he has a "lack of communication skills". "His best friends don't claim that Duncan Smith is the world's greatest orator." He stresses that he is inexperienced, and "has never been in the Cabinet". And, though there is nothing, it seems, to say about him, "there's no mystery about him."

Curious: very curious indeed. It's tempting to believe all this, to look at a photograph of this politician and his wife and think, yes, there is nothing there at all; the Fulham baby, the Fulham wife, the wife's black velvet Alice band, pearls, pie-crust collar, everything has been borrowed for the afternoon from the General Trading Company.

But that isn't, can't be true; and this is really not a point about Iain Duncan Smith, but about his admirers. What his admirers most fervently desire is revealed inadvertently in this torrent of negatives. They want nothing; less than nothing, an absence, an oblivion which is not a mystery. Even when they want to say something positive, they reach, helplessly, for their negatives. "He was very much a soldier's officer, rather than an officer's officer, not that he didn't get on with his fellow officers."

It is the rhetoric that is so telling; the language of bankrupts, of suicides, of depressives. Never, not, nowhere, no way, no how, no future, nirvana. How happy they would be, if they let me, for one moment, add another couple of negatives to IDS's credo and permit him to admit what they all secretly want: "Ever since I was small, I didn't want to be prime minister. And I'm not going to do it."

And one big, terrible thought occurs to me. Can it possibly be that the central plank of the argument, the turning away from Europe, is supported not by a burning faith in anything in particular, but by the depressive's wish to stay in bed, to make the world go away and, afterwards, do your best to make yourself go away, too? The habit of trying to sound upbeat is ingrained; the entranced chains of negatives, however, tell rather a different story.