The Tory party is suffering a palpable crisis of confidence in Blackpool. The air is thick with loud mutterings against the leadership of Iain Duncan Smith. But Tory MPs and activists have actually lost as much confidence in themselves as they have in their leader.
The media frenzy against IDS is undoubtedly being stimulated by small groups of disaffected supporters of previously failed leadership contenders - aided and abetted by one or two anonymous MPs. But there is little evidence of a concerted plot to oust the leader. Most Tory backbenchers probably regret the decision of the party activists to elect IDS, rather than Kenneth Clarke, in the first place. They are also bitterly regretting the change in the rules, foisted on them by William Hague, which placed the final decision on the leadership in the hands of the party membership.
At the beginning of the year I predicted IDS would be dumped by his party during the course of 2003. But the fact he survived the furore surrounding his dismissal of party officials loyal to Michael Portillo suggests that Tory MPs now lack the bottle or courage to put their heads above the parapet. IDS may be the "quiet man" but he is remarkably tenacious when it comes to his survival. He will not bow to any attempts by the men in grey suits to lead him into a darkened room equipped with the usual bottle of whisky and pearl-handled revolver. He is far more likely to grab the revolver and turn it on recalcitrant MPs or party grandees. So if he is to be removed it will require the invoking of the full panoply of the party constitution.
This begins with the requirement of 25 Tory MPs to write to Sir Michael Spicer, the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, requesting that a secret ballot be held on the proposition that Tory MPs have no confidence in IDS. All 166 Tory MPs are entitled to vote, so, in theory, it requires a minimum of 84 MPs to oust him. Equally, if he secured the necessary 84 votes in his favour, we can be sure that he would cling on.
What matters more than anything is whether his colleagues in the Shadow Cabinet would be prepared to continue to serve in such circumstances.
The dilemma for the Tories is that there is no agreement as to who would be a better alternative.
If IDS survives the year's end, he will lead them to certain defeat at the next general election. But so will all his rivals. The problem is not IDS: it is the Tory party.
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- Iain Duncan Smith
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