This weekend the phones of Conservative MPs are buzzing once more. Not for the first time in recent years nearly all of them are in a state of agonised ecstasy over whether they should ditch their leader.
It is something of a miracle that any of them are alive to feel agonised about anything at all. Their conference in Blackpool was more like the shoot-out at the OK Corral. Iain Duncan Smith declared that he was "firing bullets" at anyone who stood in his way. The dissenters talked of a "revolver in the library" scenario in which their leader would do the decent thing and shoot himself. Some of the conspirators suggested that if he failed to take his own political life they would do the deed themselves, a political murder to save their party. The stormy Lancashire seas should be full of rotting corpses, the blood-smattered bodies of Conservative MPs.
Political leaders pretend to be strong, violently robust, when they are desperately weak. At his lowest point in the mid-1980s Neil Kinnock declared, "If anyone stands in my path I shoot." Kinnock was in no position to shoot down anyone at the time. A neurotically weak John Major told his dissenters to put up or shut up, hoping they would all run a mile (they did not). William Hague reminded voters that he was a dab hand at judo and used to drink 14 pints a day. This was an equally absurd assertion of machismo at a time when he had no authority.
The Conservative Party has now tormented three leaders in a row, making whomever it elects seem weak and hopeless almost from the day they take up their post. For a leader the only cure appears to be resignation. Look at William Hague. He has been having a ball since he left the wretched post, writing books, presenting programmes, playing the piano. He is the first former leader in British politics to be widely seen as a future leader. Yet during his four years in charge he could never get it right, whether he wore a baseball cap or a crew-cut. There is something rotten in a political party that contaminates its leaders, making them behave bizarrely while they are in charge.
Even so, last week was not a story about a de- caying party. The Conservatives are a relatively easy party to lead. Each leader seems to inherit a blank canvas on which he can paint whatever picture he chooses. Hague's silly "tax guarantee" descended from a dark blue sky as if from nowhere. Last week's array of policies - and some seem equally silly - also emerged without much public debate from within the party. In the 1980s Kinnock struggled to get Labour to accept a policy on whether Shetland should get more lamp-posts. A Conservative leader has incomparably more freedom to shape the direction of his party. It should not be an impossible job.
The last three Conservative leaders have been tormented by the job partly because they have not been up to it. The intriguing question is precisely why Duncan Smith became even more vulnerable than usual at the opening of his conference last week. From my conversations with frontbenchers of varying degrees of seniority the answer stems from Tony Blair's performance at Labour's conference the week before. They had sat in front of their television screens before Blair was due to speak revelling in what they expected to be a gloriously uncomfortable event for the Prime Minister. Within 90 minutes Blair had leapt over the obstacles that had been placed before him. The speech was largely waffle, but it was delivered brilliantly. As the Tory frontbenchers watched in growing despair their minds turned to their own insecure, plodding leader. As one senior figure put it to me, "Blair showed the importance of being able to perform. A performance can transform a political situation. Iain cannot perform."
Fast-forward to Thursday's speech from Duncan Smith. Afterwards I spoke to several Conservative MPs who had expressed their doubts to me over recent months, wondering whether it had swayed any of them. Here is a reaction of one: "I was nauseated. It would not have been out of place at a BNP rally ... The attacks on Blair and Kennedy were ill-judged ... I felt ashamed by the style and inadequacy of the speech." This is not representative of his parliamentary party or the party as a whole, but it does reflect the views of those who were opposed to Duncan Smith before his speech. They are more rather than less fired up now. Another Tory MP put it equally bluntly: "Blair will slaughter him in a general election campaign." One of the more curious twists of the current fluid situation is that while Blair and his entourage remain obsessed with Margaret Thatcher and her style of leadership, senior Tories are obsessed with Blair.
The tragedy for Duncan Smith is that despite some of the foolish polices, he is almost on to something with some of the others he unveiled last week. He has a populist theme: "We trust the people to run their own services. We will get the state off their backs." Not surprisingly the "people" like to hear that they are trusted to run their own lives. The question of who should run the public services, the degree to which power should be devolved and in what form, has been one of the most contentious within the Government and an explosive source of tension between Blair and Brown. For the Conservatives to stir the tensions by placing themselves firmly on the side of the "people" is astute positioning. The practicalities of the policies are another matter for another day. For now, the Conservatives must wrestle with this dilemma. Under a more credible leader they could make some political headway with this theme, at the very least forcing the Government to think more clearly about how it seeks to devolve powers, while guaranteeing high-quality services across the country.
I have spoken to several Conservative MPs who plan to write letters this week to the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Michael Spicer, calling for a vote of no confidence in Duncan Smith. Twenty-five signatures are required to trigger a vote. They have no idea whether they will succeed, but expect matters to come to a head within a fortnight. On one level what they are doing is crazy. If they have their way, the Conservatives will be holding their fifth leadership contest since the fall of Thatcher, another roll of the dice, another vivid demonstration of how restlessly desperate they are.
They have no choice but to opt for craziness. Under Duncan Smith they will lose the election by at least as big a margin as they suffered under the now deified William Hague. He has fired his bullets. The more politically astute members of his parliamentary party recognise that it is time to shoot back.Reuse content