How to ditch a deadbeat Leader of the Opposition

By David Osland

After a year or so into the job, most people can spot a Leader of the Opposition (LOTO) who is just not up to it. The signs are unmistakable.

There’s a discernible lack of enthusiasm among MPs and activists; double-digit deficits at the polls; by-election results disappoint; performances at the dispatch box flail like a punch-drunk welterweight.

Black briefings from unnamed shadow cabinet ministers grow in number, as the hapless incumbent reveals time after time an inability to connect with the public.

People openly begin to ask what the party even stands for anymore.

Oppositions can afford defenestration only as the rarest of expedients, especially those dealt a cruel succession of bruising general election defeats.

But hanging on becomes a guarantee of losing next time as well, and the feeling gets abroad that a more credible LOTO would at least minimise the next defeat.

The most obvious example of this phenomenon in recent British politics is of course Iain Duncan Smith, Tory leader from 2001 to 2003.

IDS has been ranked by Leeds University’s Timothy Heppell, who researches political leadership, as “the worst leader of the Conservative Party since 1945”. Many would see that as wonderfully British understatement.

Duncan Smith was a spectacularly uncharismatic character, the epitome of the dismissive designation ‘empty suit’.

His tenure is remembered, if at all, by the train-wreck conference speech in which he dubbed himself the Quiet Man of British politics.  His opponents made damn sure the gift-wrapped soundbite stuck.

Duncan Smith was by background a recognisable Tory archetype, a not-strikingly-well-educated military man who inherited his Chingford constituency from Norman Tebbit in 1992.

As a backbencher and subsequent shadow cabinet member, he was known as an orthodox Thatcherite Eurosceptic, but never quite numbered among the Maastricht ‘Bastards’, as John Major unaffectionately dubbed his most outspoken critics.

IDS was an outsider for the Tory crown. But in the first contest in which the Tory rank and file had any input, he soundly beat the more EU-friendly Kenneth Clarke, not least thanks to the endorsement of Maggie herself.

Early omens were not auspicious. His victory announcement was due on 9/11, but had to be deferred on account of events in New York, Washington, and a field in Pennsylvania.

Nugatory efforts at policy development gained little traction, largely ignored by a media still in open thrall to second-term peak Blairism.

We did get some attempts to distance the Conservatives from the reputation of the previous leader, William Hague, inevitably portrayed as some kind of nasty extremist.

But the main IDS-era policy statement, the deservedly long-forgotten Leadership with a Purpose: A Better Society, offered merely the 57 varieties of platitude on crime, education, health care, child poverty and pension that characterise any meat and potatoes document of this kind in recent decades.

He badly mishandled hot button issues, ordering a three-line whip to vote against allowing unmarried gay couples to adopt children, so sparking rebellion from the Tories’ socially liberal minority.

IDS doubled down, arguing that the rebels were not genuinely concerned about gay adoption, but purposely challenging his right to lead.

Most shadow cabinet appointments were from his own faction, of course, as is often the way with divisive leaders. But he memorably bungled a reshuffle, demoting David Davis for the temerity of nursing leadership ambitions.

By now, Duncan Smith’s personal poll standing plummeted yet lower than that of his party. There were frontbench resignations citing his lack of cut-through with the voters, and open calls for his departure from such grandees as Michael Heseltine.

Once Channel 4 started running reports on how he had put his own wife on the public payroll – the so-called Betsygate scandal – he was clearly on the skids. But in his defence, it was his wife and not his mistress, leaving him that crucial half a moral step higher than Matt Hancock.

Months of leadership speculation followed, and Duncan Smith called on his critics to put up or shut up. They put up.

IDS folded quicker than a poker player bluffing on a pair of fours. After a vote of no confidence, he was replaced by Michael Howard as the sole candidate in a ‘coronation’ succession. Howard was another dud, ‘tis true, but that’s another story.

While there are no second acts in American lives, there sometimes are in British politics. Between 2010 and 2016, Duncan Smith served as Work and Pensions Secretary in the Cameron/Osborne austerity governments, making it harder for the sick and disabled to claim benefits, and slashing their extent for those who did meet the criteria.

Later that year, he got his wish when Britain voted to leave the EU, and he is with us to this day as a reactionary suburbanite backbencher.

In his assessment of Duncan Smith, Dr Heppell offers the following verdict: “He was devoid of the necessary political skills to be an effective leader of the opposition, let alone prime minister.

“He was a weak political communicator and a poor party manager. These limitations undermined both his credibility and his attempts at changing the policy agenda of the party.

“Anxious and insecure, he lacked either short-term tactical acumen or long-term strategic thinking. His approach to leading the party was erratic.”

And so the imperative for self-preservation saw the Tories gleefully kick a sitting leader to death. That IDS could point to a mandate from the membership mattered not one jot. That he had not even had the chance to fight a general election was neither here nor there, either.

Nearly two decades later, nobody thinks the decision was wrong. Any party faced with a similar dilemma would certainly wish to note the precedent.

David Osland is a member of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time leftwing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland

Image: Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP. Source: https://members-api.parliament.uk/api/Members/152/Portrait?cropType=ThreeTwo. Author: Richard Townshend,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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