Why Iain Duncan Smith is a political pioneer

Future generations may thank him for establishing a useful role for defunct politicians
Click to follow
The Independent Online

How should a normal, sensitive person react to the news that the BBC's latest chat initiative will involve putting Iain Duncan Smith into a garden shed to discuss the issues of the day with Johnny Vaughan? It may be slightly unkind, but then we live at a moment when cruelty is regularly served up as entertainment.

Last week, a stick-insect was popped between the glossy pink lips of Jennie Bond, chewed and then swallowed - as terrible and futile a death as any living creature could suffer. Children have been traumatised by mad strangers moving into their houses for Wife Swap. I'm almost sure that Ann Widdecombe was once filmed on an exercise bike. On the face of it, laughing at a senior politician sitting in a shed would seem to be no more demeaning than these things.

It is even possible that Duncan Smith has been playing along with the joke. Self-importance, he has recognised, can provide terrific potential for humour. Like those other heroic fools of recent years, Alan Partridge and David Brent, he has always possessed the great comic gift of taking himself rather too seriously, of assuming that it is not he who is out of step, but the rest of the world. So when, with the exception of a few nutters in Conservative Central Office, everyone knew that he lacked what it took to be an inspiring or even passably adequate leader, he took on the challenge.

At the very moment when noise, words and passion were needed, he elected to present himself as "the quiet man". Then, in a fine stand-up performance at the party conference, he pretended to be tough by implying that the Liberal leader had a drink problem. Finally, as he headed towards the wilderness, he emerged as a man who was simply too nice and straightforward for the mucky world of contemporary politics. Now perhaps he has taken his best-known characteristic - dullness - and plans to turn it into a showbiz shtick. It sounds a good idea but may yet turn out to be another terrible misjudgement.

When it comes to putting on light entertainment, the BBC is a ruthless organisation. There are signs that, by matching Iain the Shedman with Johnny Vaughan, they will be laughing at him rather than with him. Vaughan is the BBC's resident cheeky chappie. When he is around, the depressing word "irreverent" is never far away. His speciality is a genial mockery, the bloke in the pub who is having a laugh, taking the mickey out of anything or anyone remotely serious.

Announcing his new programme, he described Duncan Smith as "a phenomenon" who had "climbed the greasy pole of British politics with a mixture of stealth and sincerity", but to get the true meaning of these sentiments - which, for many, will evoke the image of a two-toed sloth in a zoo - one needs to see Johnny's face as he delivers them with his trademark smirk.

Cannily, the BBC has noticed that the British have developed a taste for laughing at public figures, and in particular those who believe that they are funny but are not or who dream of celebrity in spite of lacking charisma. If the corporation's scouts were among the 67 people who recently attended An Audience with Iain Duncan Smith at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, they will have concluded that here was an ideal foil for Vaughan's mockery.

His story of how he used to refer to "erection day" when he was a boy will have gone down a storm, as will his priceless anecdote about the day he missed a selection meeting after putting the wrong type of fuel in his car.

His ill-advised Ted Heath impression will also have been terrifically encouraging. Here was the perfect Shedman.

Yet, as politics and show-business become more inextricably linked, Duncan Smith's initiative may represent something of a breakthrough. Once, when Conservative politicians were dumped on the scrapheap, they would return to the folks from whence they came and take on a few comfortable directorships in the City. For those today who have tasted a small but heady draft of celebrity, this option is no longer enough. Retiring at an earlier age than used to be the case, they are attracted by the world of entertainment.

The public appetite for humiliation is such that there is a healthy market for semi-famous fall-guys who are prepared to subject themselves to cheerful mockery by Ant and Dec or Johnny Vaughan. Whether the work involves eating stick insects in a fake jungle or opinionating from a garden shed, it is unlikely to be too demanding, will be well paid and will satisfy the craving for exposure.

So Iain the Shedman may turn out to be a pioneer in the world of politics and entertainment. Future generations may thank him for establishing a useful role for defunct politicians - that of resident jokes for TV audiences.