Back in 2003 Iain Duncan Smith, fresh from delivering a ‘back me or sack me’ turn at his party conference, was digging in as Leader of the Conservative Party. His close advisors, including a rather intense young man by the name of Tim Montgomerie, were determined to rescue their boss from the plotters. Here, they believed, was at last a truly conservative Leader of the Conservative Party. Europhobic, a scourge of social liberalism wherever he sniffed it out, implacable on law and order; IDS, they quietly admitted, was neither popular nor charismatic. But he was ‘authentic’. And that meant a lot to that group of Tory advisors and activists whose very identity within the party is shaped by the idea that ‘betrayal’ by their own leadership is a fact of life.
IDS could not be saved. Instead, in a humiliatingly straightforward coup, he was displaced by Michael Howard. All of those fears had been, it seemed, justified. The party’s grandees had cut off the head of a grassroots champion and replaced him with one of their own. What followed, in the immediate aftermath of this act of euthanasia, is central to understanding this weekend’s events.
Howard succeeded in gathering most of his party into a big but messy tent. He quietly began to sand down some of the sharper edges of IDS’ agenda and he made room in his Shadow Cabinet for the ‘next generation’. In particular he promoted two men who, it just so happened, had been his close advisors – both as SpAds when he was in Government and as newish MPs as he plotted his ascension to the top job. George Osborne and David Cameron mapped their route to power through the destruction of Duncan Smith.
Meanwhile, though, the rule book was being ignored by the deposed leader. While he should have been sinking into bitter obscurity IDS was, instead, reinventing himself. With the help and guidance of Montgomerie, he set up a new think tank (the Centre for Social Justice) to do big and serious work on combatting poverty and reforming welfare. He gave speeches that flaunted a softer and more compassionate perspective – one which, he sometimes confessed, had been obscured when he was at the top.
Bereft of any original thinking on welfare, and facing the tricky dilemma of keeping the Tory right in bed with the Lib Dems, in 2010 Cameron and Osborne invited their old enemy into Cabinet. It was a remarkable rebirth for a man so defined by abject failure. And his bright, young bosses rather hoped that gratitude would keep him biddable. That now proves to have been an error.
Did IDS resign over disabled people’s benefits? A bit. Was it ‘really about Europe’? A bit. In truth, though, this is as much about personality as it is policy. A decade of being condescended to and patronised by the very men who had, so effortlessly, humiliated you in public – that can grow unbearable. And watching these two men appear to wear so lightly an issue you regard as almost sacred – Europe – can start to naw at your soul. The Sun today describes this as Roundheads vs. Cavaliers – a battle for the Tory soul – and they are right. Relaxed, fun and cosmopolitan, George Osborne has earned the ire of the more serious, less easy-going wing of his party. It is no coincidence that IDS’ resignation was proceeded by that of Montgomerie (his old lieutenant) from the party. Montgomerie tested the tortured rhetoric for impact. IDS then wielded his knife.
What difference does it make? None to the referendum itself, except to unsettle slightly the operational leadership of the Tory Remain campaign. IDS is now a little more free to betray and insult his (now former) colleagues, but then he wasn’t showing a great deal of restraint beforehand. But on the 24th June, this weekend will make much more tactical sense. The hope of IDS and his allies is that whatever happens in the plebiscite on Europe, Cameron must be removed and Osborne blocked. Whether the Prime Minister wins or loses the vote – and by almost whatever margin – this camp with IDS installed as their captain will call for a revolution. They see in Cameron and Osborne – these two privileged and successful men – a cancer that must be cut out from the body-Tory. No matter that their pragmatic, path-of-least-resistance instincts are far more in the traditions of the Tory party than folk like to admit. Never mind that they have won the Conservatives an election, finally. No, no. IDS and his band of mirthless men will not be swayed by such baubles. They want a return, instead, to ‘authenticity’. You know, like the Labour Party finally got after all those miserable years in power.