Go on, laugh – it may save him

Iain Duncan Smith has made a terrible start, but attacks on him could rebound

Jo Dillon
Friday 28 February 2014 03:56

Abysmal. Deadly as a dose of Grade A anthrax. A T-rex of a bore. Notices such as that would close a West End show overnight. But it is Iain Duncan Smith, the newly elected leader of Her Majesty's Opposition, whose performance in the House of Commons last week drew reviews so devastating that they have left his parliamentary colleagues and their sketch-writer authors wondering: can the show go on? Or must the curtain come down on this Whitehall farce?

Where to begin? The problem with Mr Duncan Smith is that the whole production is flawed, from the way he speaks his lines to his dress and leadership skills.

Mr Duncan Smith's performance as leader got off to a less than auspicious start when he addressed the annual party conference in Blackpool. Take the way IDS styles himself. Every politician has a trademark. Margaret Thatcher had her handbag, Tony Blair has his cup of tea and Iain Duncan Smith has ... a frog in his throat. The new Tory leader, like the one before him – who can forget William Hague's disastrous baseball cap? – has an image problem.

Then there was his speech to the Blue Ball, the Tory fund-raiser held at London's Savoy hotel, which was described as "abysmal" by one onlooker. Following an ill-judged joke about the jailed Tory peer Lord Archer, a senior Tory is reported to have remarked: "Iain doesn't do jokes." The performance is said to have left Mr Duncan Smith's leadership rival, Kenneth Clarke, rolling his eyes.

Then there is his dress. Mr Duncan Smith's funeral director's suit, the one with the too-short sleeves, set the tone in the Commons last week at Prime Minister's Question Time. He was heckled from the Labour side and the cheers of support from his own MPs were more of a murmur than a roar.

Much has been made, too, of the man sitting next to him: David Davis, the ambitious party chairman – and a man already tipped to take over from Mr Duncan Smith. A Tory insider said: "David is an arch self-publicist. There's been a lot of criticism of his conduct, which can't have failed to reach the ears of Iain."

Tories admit Mr Duncan Smith was "nervous" at Question Time. But his team hope he'll settle into the task of taking on a prime minister each week who's already had years of practice.

The former Tory MP Michael Brown said: "There is no doubt a woodenness about his performance. But when Margaret Thatcher was finding her feet as Opposition leader she wasn't good."

So what next? Voice coaching, image consultants, hordes of spin-doctors? No way, says Tory Central Office.

Strangely, "style guru" Peter York agrees: "He is every bit as unexciting as they said, only more so. But the answer is, don't do a damned thing – you'll get the sympathy vote.

"The moment you get people like me saying 'That's a bad suit', the masses of ordinary people throughout the country will say, 'That Iain Duncan Smith, he's quite unflashy, he's a man of settled views'.

"The answer could be to get as many poncey people like me to make an awful mock of him. Get us into saying 'dull suit, dull voice, dull slaphead', then he might win people over. His critics will save him."

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