From Right to Far Right

Print edition : October 13, 2001

With the Right extremist Iain Duncan Smith as its leader, it is difficult for the Tory party to make any ground unless the Tony Blair government does something spectacularly wrong.

THE election of Iain Duncan Smith, who likes to be known by his initials "IDS", as the new leader of the British Conservative Party has been overshadowed by world events. Perhaps mercifully so, as many Tories confide, for the little-known former Guards officer stands on the extreme Right of the party commonly and dismissively referred to as the "hang 'em and flog 'em brigade". Duncan Smith came to some prominence as a persistent rebel against his own party's whip when Tory Premier John Major was trying to steer through Parliament various bills to enact European legislation; an exasperated Major described this group of anti-Europeans at that time with a 'B' word profanity.

Major intervened in the leadership election process to speak against Duncan Smith but to no avail, and IDS swept home to a clear victory with 60.7 per cent of the vote against his rival Kenneth Clarke.

The actual procedure for the election made the contest more like an American primary than the time-honoured Tory method of the great and the good taking the soundings in the various dark corners of quiet St. James' gentlemen's clubs. An exhaustive ballot was held first among Tory MPs, which led to the surprise elimination of the charismatic but enigmatic Michael Portillo. Portillo was once the darling of the Thatcherites but underwent a conversion to "compassionate conservatism" after a humiliating personal defeat in the 1997 general elections. Portillo, who had previously confessed to a homosexual relationship in his youth, hinted at the legalisation of cannabis and a more tolerant and inclusive Tory party. The Tory Left seemingly did trust the conversion and the Tory Right could not forgive it.

The field was reduced to a straight fight between Kenneth Clarke, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who combines unrivalled ministerial experience with a "one of the blokes" image as a beer-drinking, cigar-smoking, cricket fan, and Duncan Smith as the flag-bearer of the Right. The two candidates were subject to a long hustings and an eventual postal vote of all the Tory party's ageing membership.

It was the issue of Britain's relationship with Europe which most vividly divided the candidates. The Tory party grassroots have become more and more "Eurosceptic", to the dismay of many of its senior statesmen led by Sir Edward Heath, who as Tory Premier took Britain into the European Union in 1971.

Kenneth Clarke has never disguised his enthusiasm for the European project and is an outspoken and eloquent supporter of Britain's entry into the next stage of European integration, namely the single currency, an issue on which Premier Blair has promised a referendum. The idea of a Tory leader campaigning in that referendum against the majority of his own members proved too difficult for Clarke's bonhomie to finesse.

Since New Labour has stolen most of the Tories' clothes by moving rapidly to the Right, the Tories have been in some quandary, whether to try to leapfrog New Labour, so to speak, and reoccupy the centre ground, or to keep going Right themselves. Here again the choice was clear and once again it was IDS who seemed to speak most to Tory hearts. The eventual victory declaration, delayed to accommodate the more important news breaking in the wake of the September 11 attacks, was a very muted affair and Iain Duncan Smith had to make his parliamentary debut as leader in the sombre atmosphere of a House of Commons recalled in the light of the international crisis.

Muted too was the atmosphere of glee tinged with mirth in the Labour Party, whose own members, if allowed to ballot, would have definitely chosen Iain Duncan Smith as the least feared of the potential Tory leaders.

Iain Duncan Smith's first task has been to nominate his "Shadow Cabinet". It is said that the aged Duke of Wellington when being read the list of a successor Cabinet, exclaimed after each name "Who?" And that has been the reaction to the lists provided by IDS. The only prominent name with any real experience that has made (somewhat surprising) return is that of Michael Howard, as Shadow Foreign Secretary. Howard had been an unpopular and hardline Home Secretary in the last Tory administration.

If Howard's return caused surprise, it was amazement which greeted the nomination of Bill Cash as Shadow Attorney-General. The ever pinstripe-suited Cash is in a long tradition of English eccentrics - clear and logical in his arguments yet maniacally obsessive in his crusade against further European integration. Cash was the most belligerent of all those of whom Major used the 'B' word and the press corps reportedly had great difficulty accepting the fact that his appointment was real and not some hoax.

It is difficult to see an IDS-led Tory party making any ground at all unless something goes spectacularly wrong for the Blair government. It has been pointed out that IDS' strategy is better suited to a right-wing party in a proportional representational system - always able to secure its own core vote, but unable to move beyond, therefore always a potential coalition partner but never a potential party of majority.

The Labour Party's joy was matched by that of the Liberal Democrats whose annual conference greeted Duncan Smith's election as a chance to woo disaffected liberal-minded and pro-Europe Tories. The Liberals were supplanted as the major Opposition bloc to the Tories in the early part of the 20th century by the rising Labour Party; now, the Liberals see their best chance of making a historical comeback and replacing the Tories as the main party of Opposition to Labour. The Tories have been the most successful political party in the history of democratic politics, and though predictions of their total demise may yet be premature, a long time in the wilderness is likely.

Michael Hindley was a Labour Member of the European Parliament from 1984 to 1999. He is now a freelance consultant on international affairs. In June 2001 he was elected to Lancashire County Council in the United Kingdom.

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