Diary of the great Tory coup
`FIVE WEEKS THAT SHOOK TO THE CORE THE PARTY OF DISRAELI, CHURCHILL AND THATCHER'EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES who spent nearly five weeks at the cutting edge of the great Tory coup in Blackpool and Westminster, kept a diary of the last days of Iain Duncan Smith's leadership and the crowning of Michael Howard.
`FIVE WEEKS THAT SHOOK TO THE CORE THE PARTY OF DISRAELI, CHURCHILL AND THATCHER'
EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES who spent nearly five weeks at the cutting edge of the great Tory coup in Blackpool and Westminster, kept a diary of the last days of Iain Duncan Smith's leadership and the crowning of Michael Howard.
Friday October 3: Following a threat from the Tory leader to sue, the BBC pulls the plug on an investigative piece for Newsnight alleging irregular payments to Betsy Duncan Smith out of IDS's office allowance.
Sunday October 5: To Stansted airport for Ryanair's 7.05pm flight to Blackpool. It's full with media personnel – mostly from the BBC – and assorted MPs and Parliamentary candidates.. Michael Brown, the ex-MP turned Tory media pundit, holds court in the departure lounge, obviously aware something unpleasant is about to burst over the party. As we board, I bump into former Suffolk county council Tory group leader Sue Sida-Lockett and her husband Ivan, both confident the conference will be a success with IDS proving his worth and new policies will not be overshadowed by personalities.
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Monday October 6: The morning paper delivered to my Blackpool hotel room says it all – an orgy of Tory plotting and intrigue. It's obvious the Betsygate allegations are part of a carefully constructed ploy to overshadow the conference and force the removal of IDS. The media centre is full of journalists rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of bucket loads of blood on the carpet. The Conservative Central Office media team, all decamped in Blackpool, just cannot believe that their own MPs want to destroy months of hard work on policy initiatives, all of which will be overshadowed by the coup against IDS. Walking around the Blackpool conference with my yellow media pass, IDS loyalist delegates whom I know come up and blame the Press for trying to wreck the Party. They refuse to believe it's anonymous Tories who are briefing against the leader of the party. And the weather's simply bl…y. awful.
Tuesday October 7: East of England Tories at their reception give IDS a rousing welcome, He gives a lighthearted but determined speech. He shows no sign of buckling under the pressure. The BBC's reception, hosted by Director General Greg Dyke, features the cast of radio's The Now Show – at the back of the room, Shadow Cabinet ministers and MPs pay no attention as they huddle together in tiny groups.
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Wednesday October 8: Took a tram to Fleetwood to start composing my thoughts on an in-depth article on the conference. This is a Parliamentary constituency which should be natural Tory territory but now elects a Labour MP. If the Tories are ever to form a Government, they must take Fleetwood.
The atmosphere in the media room at Blackpool grows more febrile. The Tories do not have morning conference sessions, leaving more than 200 journalists with nothing else to do than play "spot the plotter." At dinner that evening with the Colchester and North Essex delegates at the upmarket De Vere Heron's Reach, there's still an air of defiance – IDS will survive!
Thursday October 8: IDS's set piece conference speech is greeted enthusiastically by delegates, prompted by carefully planted Central Office staffers leading the applause. Listened to and watched live, the speech sounds fine. Television replays reveal just how ghastly it has been.
Amid the debris of the post-conference Imperial Hotel, IDS's media adviser Mike Penning – also the party's candidate in Hemel Hempstead – tries to hold the line, keeping Tory activists' spirits up during the long wait for the evening flight to Stansted. And Lee Scott, who fought Waveney in 2001 and will do battle next time in key marginal Ilford North, insists IDS will lead the Tories at the election. The return journey is subdued. Shadow Health Secretary Dr Liam Fox sits with the national media while IDS's closest ally Shadow Defence Secretary Bernard Jenkin and wife Ann – who escaped the tension this afternoon by watching the film Calendar Girls – try to relax on the 35 minute flight. But it's obvious everything is going horribly wrong.
Sunday October 12: The Tories are ahead in an opinion poll. But they should have been for the past two years. Too little, too late for IDS. The Tory-supporting Sunday Telegraph publishes the Betsygate allegations.
Monday October 13: Journalist Michael Crick – whose Newsnight investigation was scrapped by the BBC – hands his Betsygate dossier to Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Sir Philip Mawer. IDS issues a 40 page rebuttal.
Tuesday October 14: Sir Philips announces a full inquiry
Wednesday October 15. Michael Howard backs IDS. "It is a serious situation where there are some people within the Conservative Party who seem determined to distract us from our duty which is to hold this Government to account." IDS receives a rousing reception from Labour MPs, desperate to keep him in office because they believe his under-performances against Tony Blair and lack of public presence will see the Tories annihilated at the election.
Thursday October 16: IDS in Cornwall to launch the party's European election campaign, The media's not interested in polices, just his future.
Sunday October 19: The Prime Minister rushed to hospital with a heart scare. Back in Downing Street after five hours.
Wednesday October 23: It says a lot about the state of British politics when the leadership crisis in the Tory Party overshadows the Prime Minister's health scare. Another reasonable IDS showing at Question Time. Tony Blair on top form and weighs into Charles Kennedy, a rousing performance much enjoyed by Labour and Tory MPs alike.
Thursday October 24: The day when those who want IDS out are finally convinced. Big money donors to the party say they'll give no more until IDS quits. The leader goes to Loughborough University to talk about Tory policies on drug testing in sport and tuition fees. Nothing of these initiatives is reported – the accompanying media pack is like the bull baiters of old. Maldon & Chelmsford East MP and Shadow Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, who chairs the meeting, utterly appalled. IDS is hung out to dry – the Tory Party cannot continue amid this frenzy.
Sunday October 26: IDS appears on Sir David Frost's talk show, challenging the plotters to put up by Wednesday or he will assume there are not 25 names to challenge him.
Monday October 27: Return from a weekend in the Isle of Wight. The previous day's Sunday papers dreadful for the Tories. The party is now in absolute ferment – the plotters have struck – at least 25 MPs have submitted requests, under anonymity to Sir Michael Spicer, Chairman of the 1922 Committee, and a vote of confidence will be held on Wednesday
OCTOBER 28: THE WORST DAY IN THE PARTY'S LONG HISTORY
Tuesday October 28: This is the day the Conservative Party comes within a hair's breadth of fracturing. The 300,000 party members, the volunteers who week after week raise funds for the Tory cause, are seething. How dare the MPs try to sack the man they had voted for in the first democratic election of the party's rank-and-file? Conservative Central Office, crippled by uncertainty and the disloyalty of some deep seated staffers, is drifting and helpless. IDS is marooned, support in the Parliamentary party is haemorrhaging. I write my obituary of IDS to be published on Thursday.
Wednesday October 29: Labour MPs, hawking "Have confidence, Vote IDS" stickers, simply harden Tory opinion at Westminster. At noon, IDS again shows a degree of competence at PMQ's. And again the Prime Minister warms the House by launching into a tirade against the hapless Charles Kennedy.
It's 1.30pm and I'm waiting outside Committee Room 14 for the start of the 1922 Committee, always held in private. The ever-optimistic Bernard Jenkin still believes there's a chance he'll narrowly survive the vote – but that's the worst possible outcome. The party really would die. IDS appeals for another chance and there is a respectful banging of desk – the public school tradition of approval adopted by the Tories. Return to Ipswich to wait result of vote – IDS is out by 90 votes to 75. At Conservative Central Office, IDS regrets he will not now be the first Tory Prime Minister of the 21st century. David Davis refuses to join the race to succeed, followed by others including South Suffolk's Tim Yeo.
Thursday October 30: Michael Howard looks a winner as he launches his campaign at the Saatchi Gallery opposite the Commons. The Tories believe he's the one to reverse 11 years' decline and fall.
I am now certain that one of my close contacts in the Parliamentary party sent a letter to Sir Michael Spicer calling for a confidence vote. And I'm pretty sure two others joined him in voting `no.'
Wednesday November 5: IDS's last appearance at Question Time. He performs well – if he had been so confident, witty and sharp in the previous two years, he might not have been axed. Michael Howard sits beside him, grinning like a Cheshire cat, no doubt relishing the task ahead.
Thursday November 6: Caught the 10am train to London, changing at Stratford for the Jubilee Line direct to Westminster. Outside Committee Room 14, the media gathers to watch the final rites. Jovial Tory MPs arrive, boosted by the extraordinary public row developing between the Prime Minister and his Chancellor over the European constitution and the decision not to allow Gordon Brown a seat on Labour's ruling national executive. Tory MPs believe the Tories now have a chance – a chance they would not have been able to seize under Duncan Smith, but Howard will make the most of it. I find an MP who admits he is one of those 25 who had called for IDS's head. It's none other than the anonymous MP for Hexham in Northumberland – Peter Atkinson, former journalist, and a Suffolk county councillor from 1989 to 1992. It's always the quiet ones you have to watch. Sir Michael Spicer declares Howard, as the only candidate, the winner, and Tory MPs bang their desks. After his speech, they stand to show their approval, banging him out the room. It's a standing bang – it could only happen in the Conservative Party.
Howard heads for Putney and Brighton for his first speeches as leader. Tonight at the Fine Arts Society in New Bond Street, the great and the good of the Tory Party assemble for the launch of IDS's career as a novelist. The media is small in number – my invite came through Annabel Tuck, IDS's media officer. I'm still not sure why I've been asked. But witnessing the new found bonhomie of Tories at play is a fitting end to five weeks that shook the party of Disraeli, Churchill and Thatcher to its core – it's now up to the voters to decide when and if the Conservatives' self styled renaissance translates into an ability to win again .