Duncan Smith's evasion techniques are as bad as his acting

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The Independent Online

"Then we will be going to the swimming pool but you won't be allowed into the pool area." The pocket battleship that runs Iain Duncan Smith's events is popular with the press, not least for her firepower. "It's for health and safety reasons," she said, quelling our scoffing with the words: "I'd kick you lot straight in, that's why."

Whatever it was that her leader wanted to talk about wasn't what the press wanted to talk about. With increasing levels of ingenuity, half a dozen questioners asked the leader of the Conservative party what on earth he thought he was doing leading the Conservative Party. It be very much better for all concerned, the logic ran, if he removed himself from the scene so we could see what he was trying to say.

It's not entirely fair, but it's not absolutely unreasonable, for we have been here before. This time last year, the Tory announcement of their most popular policy for years (a new initiative on giving council house owners the right to buy) was buried by their leader's alternative announcement: "Unite or die!" They're a bloody-minded lot, Tory MPs, and they promptly chose "Neither of the above". When people say "It can't go on" they can never quite say why not.

Yesterday, Mr Duncan Smith was in the east Midlands to give us the comparative value-for-money figures for different local authorities, to introduce his Euro election team, to announce a plan to strengthen dope control in sport, to denounce the Government's social engineering ambitions in university entrance, to recommit to abolish top-up fees and to launch the campaign to petition parliament for a referendum on the euro. If you throw enough at a wall in the Quality Hotel in Loughborough, modern theory suggests, some of it will stick. It's not much of a theory, and it doesn't work.

All the reporters' questions - bar one - centred on his leadership. For several years, it's been the only thing about the Tories that commands public attention.

Tory front bench spokesman John Whittingdale (whose jowl development bodes increasingly well for his parliamentary career) asked for questions to be directed through him and to be restricted to policy, so the first questioner told Mr Duncan Smith to his face that his message was being drowned out by the feverish speculation in his party, that the only way to deal with it was to lance the boil, and the only reason for not doing so was that he must, in Mrs Thatcher's phrase, be "frit".

Mr Duncan Smith chuckled comfortably, acting with great nonchalance (though it must be said, acting is not his forte). "As you're keen on referenda," a journalist asked "what about another sort of referendum". He suggested a vote of confidence from the parliamentary party. Someone else wondered how frustrating it must be that "turning up the volume" (his conference promise) didn't allow him to be heard above theconstant background clatter of party plotting.

Another asked him whether it was true the chief whip had told him support was slipping away.

To all these questions, Mr Duncan Smith gave the same, slightly mad answer.

"I was elected by the party and I am going to lead it into the next election and I am going to win it!" And once he said: "And I promise you, Angus, you will get the first interview after the election!"

"In the departure lounge of Air Pork," someone muttered.

The remark that cheered us up most was his assertion late in the press conference where he said: "There is no question about my leadership!"

No questions about his leadership? There was nothing but.

In the end, I got a question, so I took my place in the pantheon of political interviewers by asking: "When you've seen off your critics and won the next election, what will your first act as prime minister be?"

Sorting out crime, apparently, it's too high. Then introducing the patients' passport, allowing people to get their operations at hospitals round the country. Then pensions had to be put right, and top-up fees abolished.

"Should take us about three days," he concluded.

Either he hadn't thought his answer through, or he wasn't taking the question seriously. Oh, all right, he was joking. Fair enough.

Gallows humour has its place, after all.