Mr Duncan Smith and the strange living death of the Tory party

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The Independent Online

Of all the anniversaries marked next week, that of the election of Iain Duncan Smith as leader of the Conservative Party is unlikely to attract the most attention. The launch of his leadership was postponed and overshadowed by the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, and he has never really managed to grab the headlines since.

This is despite some thoughtful positioning of his party, showing that he had learnt some of the lessons of his predecessor's failure. He has managed to stop his colleagues talking about their opposition to the euro. He has avoided anti-immigrant rhetoric and xenophobia, taking swift action against any suggestion of racism. Rather astutely, he has shown some interest in continental models of health and education services – thus turning his party outward towards the rest of Europe and at the same time finding footholds from which to attack Labour over the delivery of public services.

This is more than William Hague ever managed in opposing Labour's high-spending, state-centralising instincts. But it has not gone far enough yet. There is a great deal of work to do in setting out a programme for the health and education services that enhance individual liberty.

Much of the past year has been spent trying to set out broad themes and avoid mistakes. Positioning the Tory party as – once again – concerned about the fate of the vulnerable in British society is going to take some time. This week's effort by Damian Green, the education spokesman, to draw attention to the rising numbers of children leaving inner-city schools without any qualifications was a worthy one. The trouble was that his solution – better discipline – is feebly unconvincing.

Tony Blair has offered Mr Duncan Smith few opportunities to strike. One of those has been the Government's difficulties over Zimbabwe, but Mr Duncan Smith has failed to hit home, despite having served in the army there. Equally, he could have performed a democratic service by expressing the case against slavishly supporting US bellicosity towards Iraq. On the other hand, it might have been unwise to play up to the old Tory isolationism in foreign affairs.

Nor is the retrospective comparison of Mr Duncan Smith with Mr Hague all in the new leader's favour. Mr Hague may well have been written off by the British electorate within the first few moments as unserious, forever the teenage politics geek who cheeked Mrs Thatcher and then donned a baseball cap. But at least he is an articulate, witty and patently intelligent public speaker. Mr Duncan Smith's voice – both literally and figuratively – is straight and rather boring. The sense of mischief that used to play around the edges of his persona has been suppressed, partly perhaps because it recalls too much his parliamentary history as a Maastricht rebel.

For the rest, he has avoided serious mistakes – always an underestimated ability in politics – except for the botched demotion of David Davis, his rival for the leadership. And that only matters because the prospect of victory for his party seems as distant as ever. Mr Duncan Smith has got much of the background music right. But he still lacks a main theme.