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Thursday, October 30, 2003
The last Conservative leader ... and the next

Iain Duncan Smith was no Thatcher, no Churchill, no Disraeli. But he certainly deserved better than to be the first Conservative leader since Neville Chamberlain to be forced out of office without even fighting a General Election. I first joined the Tories in 1998, but I let my membership lapse, so I did not have a vote in the last leadership election. Given what appeared would be the choice, I was in no particular hurry to rejoin the party after William Hague resigned. I can remember chatting with a 'wet' friend in June 2001 about what would come next, with us both agreeing it looked as though either Kenneth Clarke or Michael Portillo would soon be leading the party, signifying a move considerably to the left that would satisfy him and concern me.

So when IDS moved in a few days from being an outsider to being the favourite, I was relieved. I believed that travelling full steam ahead in the directions proposed either by Clarke or Portillo would be inconsistent with the conservative vision and was likely to be ineffective in winning back lost support. Equally, I was unconvinced that the personalities of either one would be a positive factor in polling stations to any great degree. Like I think most of the membership of the party, then, Iain Duncan Smith was if anything the default choice. The most common expression of this, that he was chosen for not being Clarke and for not being Portillo, was true for me.

But given this, the Tories still ended up on 13 September 2001 with a leader with no experience of ministerial office whose days as a Maastricht rebel and Redwood cheerleader were at least as memorable as his time shadowing the Social Security and Defence ministries. I cannot deny that at times in those early days I feared the party had made the wrong choice. Portillo may have been proposing a range of essentially Blairite reforms to the party - as if Thatcherism were no more effective or voter-friendly than Old Labour - but he still seemed less of a leap in the dark.

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