‘Tis the season to be awarding, so we’re almost proud to introduce our not-yet-coveted Morgan of the Month rosette, bestowed upon a British public figure who’s proved to be both overexposed and surplus to requirements. Our first winner is someone for whom winning has seldom been a way of life…
‘Man, this is heavy shit!’
Iain Duncan Smith, The Devil’s Tune
(Robson Books, 2003)
When the Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe signed a publishing contract for her first novel, The Clematis Tree (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000), she received an advance of £50,000. When the Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith secured a deal for his own first novel, The Devil’s Tune, it was reported that he got just £7,500. And that was almost certainly more than it was worth, given the appalling reviews and lack of sales that followed, and the absence of a paperback edition. His publishers said their best hope lay in America, because ‘they haven’t heard of him there’.
And that, in essence, is Iain Duncan Smith. Even as the leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition, he was an also-ran, eclipsed by a backbencher.
The Devil’s Tune was, unsurprisingly, Smith’s only novel. Literature’s gain has been politics’ loss. By the time it was published, however, he was no longer in office, having been kicked out by his own MPs, fearful of the inevitable meltdown if he were allowed to take the party into a general election. They’d nicknamed him In Deep Shit, and they didn’t plan on joining him in the ordure.
So he’s an ex-leader. And, of course, he’s also an ex-minister, having served nearly six years as work and pensions secretary. Let’s mince words: he wasn’t a conspicuous success in that job, either. He couldn’t even make a decent fist of his unexpected resignation in March 2016.
But here he is, still with us, still being invited by the media to share his thoughts. Ever since the EU referendum vote, he’s been a persistent presence on television and radio.
This month he turned up on Victoria Derbyshire’s BBC Two show to give us his considered opinion on the Supreme Court’s Article 50 ruling. He wasn’t happy. To start with, he didn’t actually want the Court to be considering the case, though if a Supreme Court isn’t the place for resolving constitutional questions, it’s hard to know where is. Or, indeed, why we have a Supreme Court.
But he was keen to broaden the agenda: ‘There’s the European issue but there’s also the issue about who is supreme – Parliament or a self-appointed court. This is the issue here right now.’
He was mistaken. It was not the issue. The issue was whether the government should be able to commence negotiations without seeking the consent of Parliament. The ruling, by a court that is not ‘self-appointed’, came down in favour of Parliament rather than the Crown. Even if one believes that in practice it makes – and perhaps should make – little difference in this instance, it is in principle a decision that any democrat would welcome.
It was disturbing last year when some newspapers railed against ‘unelected judges’ as ‘enemies of the people’; when someone who’s supposed to be a senior politician joins in, it becomes positively embarrassing.
But Smith wasn’t finished. ‘They’ve stepped into new territory,’ he continued, ‘where they’ve actually told Parliament not just that they should do something but actually what they should do. I think that leads further down the road to real constitutional issues about who is supreme in this role.’ This, presumably, was in response to the Court’s decision that what form the legislation took was ‘entirely a matter’ for Parliament.
In short, he was – exactly as you would have expected – wrong in almost every word he spoke. And he was boring and predictable in the way he spoke them.
Which brings into focus some questions that have been in the air for some time: Why does anyone bother to ask what he thinks? Has he ever had an original, worthwhile or interesting thing to say? Put most acutely, what is the point of Iain Duncan Smith?
After all, there are other anti-European Tories who can assist broadcasters on a budget. If you want to hear a dull but dogged description of detail, then Bill Cash is always available. If you want the charming young eccentric version, you go for Jacob Rees-Mogg. And if you want an impression of an intellectual, you give John Redwood a call.
Smith offers none of this: no insight, no grasp of detail, no entertainment value. All he has are vague generalities that fail to find a soundbite. Popularism without a shred of popularity. Which looks ridiculous. He couldn’t persuade his MPs to back him as leader, and it is impossible to believe that he changes the mind of a single viewer or listener.
A decade-and-a-half ago, Roy Hattersley dismissed him as ‘a third-rate politician’, and nothing much has changed since then. Around the same time, David Mellor was similarly unimpressed: ‘On a good day a mediocrity, on a bad one, a nonentity.’ Kenneth Clarke, meanwhile, couldn’t comment on whether or not he agreed with the party’s policies under Smith, since, as he explained, ‘I don’t know what they are.’
At a time of transition, of uncertainty and difficulty, Smith is of no earthly use to the country. He’s not even of any use to his own side. Back in the days when Sven-Göran Eriksson managed the England football team, it was said that he didn’t always send the team out with fire in their bellies. As one defender put it, after a particularly uninspiring half-time talk: ‘We needed Churchill and we got Iain Duncan Smith.’ We all know how he felt.
Ubiquitous and unnecessary, Iain Duncan Smith is a shoo-in for an award which takes its name from Piers Morgan. But really this ‘accolade’ is not just for Smith alone. It’s for all those producers of radio and television shows who have allowed him in their studios over the last eight months. For pity’s sake, just stop it.