2000s >> 2001 >> no-1167-october-2001

Greasy Pole: The Chingford Factor

When Norman Tebbit announced, before the 1992 general election, that he would not be standing for the Commons again the Chingford Tories might have decided that they had had enough of being represented by a fanatical, hard-line, militant Thatcherite. But they didn’t think like that – they voted to replace Tebbit with Iain Duncan Smith, a candidate Tebbit approved of so much that he later described him as “a remarkably normal family man with children”. In the 1992 election, breaking the new man into the constituency, Tebbit took Duncan Smith canvassing. A woman asked them what they thought about fox hunting. Perhaps Tebbit thought this was too deep and complex a philosophical question to be left to the new candidate. Before Duncan Smith could draw breath Tebbit informed the woman: “Madam, these are the teeth of a killer. This man must have meat or die.” Well you might say he has had his meat now, as the carcasses of Ancram, Portillo and Clarke testify.

Duncan Smith’s victory provoked some anxiety among the more vulnerable Tories about his stance on issues like Europe, gay rights, capital and corporal punishment. Would this ex-Guards officer, they worried, blast away their fragile majorities with some brisk, parade ground statements which would provide some juicy copy for the media but cost them their seats? Whatever their reservations they might have consoled themselves that their new leader is honest, brave and consistent. Well if that had been true Duncan Smith would be unique among politicians. In December 1999, answering a question on BBC News Online about the chances of Portillo thrashing Hague in a leadership election, he said:

“I don’t think any leadership contest is imminent or likely to take place…William Hague’s leadership of the Conservative Party is beginning to show real results and that we are seeing damage to the Labour Party. The simple answer is there is no leadership competition. I am very happy with William Hague’s leadership.”

He was not always so ardent an admirer of the man he replaced as Tory Leader. In the 1997 contest Duncan Smith not only opposed Hague but ran the opposing campaign of the prominent Eurosceptic John Redwood. He clambered onto the Hague bandwagon only when Redwood was knocked out of the running. Then there was the matter of his sudden change over Clause 28. Some of his supporters were worried that his unbending stance on this issue clashed with their efforts to recast the Tory party as a caring, listening devotee of diversity. Duncan Smith seems to have been impressed enough by this apparent threat to his votes to forget his “principles” and change course, promising to “review” Clause 28.

One possible explanation is that he is not the smoothest of operators. “Nice chap. Army officer with all that implies” was how one contemptuous Tory MP described him in the late 1970s. “His pronouncements are half-baked, immature ideas . . . not the sharpest knife in the drawer” was a more recent, less tolerant, assessment by someone who was, but who is probably not now, a shadow minister. Remembering his history as a Maastricht rebel, it is now assumed that, for lack of any better ideas, Duncan Smith will want to preside over a kind of festival of right-wing mania in the Tory party. Well this may happen but it need not be so. Harold Macmillan, for example, emerged as Tory leader in 1957 carrying the hopes of many in his party that he would prevent any more moves to dismember what was left of the British Empire. Then he disappointed, not to say outraged, them with policies epitomised in his “winds of change” speech. John Major was elected largely because he was Thatcher’s favourite, the man chosen to carry on where she had left off. Then she – and a lot of other Tories – quickly learned that they had made a mistake. There is no reason to assume that the experience of Duncan Smith’s leadership need be any different.

And if he does change course, how will that be received by the Chingford Tories, who chose him as a worthy successor to Tebbit, memorably mocked by Denis Healey as “the Chingford skinhead” and scourged by Michael Foot as “a semi house-trained polecat”? What, in other words, goes on in that northern segment of the great metropolis? Well there are two Chingfords. The north bit is greener and more affluent and the south drabber and more depressed. As a constituency it sits uneasily on the electoral map, an isolated blob of blue surrounded by a red sea of Labour in Walthamstow, Ilford North and Edmonton. The local government reforms introduced by the Heath government moved Chingford from Essex, with its undertones of rustic tranquillity, into the London postal district of E4, which gives a few estate agents a few headaches as they sweat to persuade customers that they are not buying into the East End, the Krays, Albert Square and all that. The Knowhere Guide informs us that “If you’re out for a fight it’s a great place if not it sucks!” And there is the mystery of the large, attractive swimming pool which is no more because it was changed into a waterpark and then sank without trace.

Chingford’s residents are mainly white, in manual jobs and “home owners” – which means they are painfully buying a house which in all practical terms belongs to a bank or a building society until, if they can avoid any disasters like repossession, it eventually becomes theirs. In the better part of the town they live in broad, leafy streets, some of them bordering on Epping Forest. This is the estate agents’ idea of traditional Tory suburbia. Its devotion to the Conservative Party may be quieter and more refined than in places like Basildon but it did not stop them choosing a political rottweiler like Tebbit as their MP and electing him again for the next 18 years. Such was Tebbit’s power in the party that he might have become its leader, if Thatcher had not held on until his time had passed. And now the Chingford Tories have Duncan Smith who has scaled that height; no doubt they are delighted with their choice.

As a constituency Chingford is in bits and pieces; for example part of it is in the London Borough of Waltham Forest, which is not famous for being green or affluent. Of the 20 wards in the borough 16 are in the top 20 percent for housing deprivation and 12 are in the top 12 percent for income deprivation. In August 2000 the unemployment rate in Waltham Forest was 5.7 percent compared to a rate in Chingford of 2.6 percent. It would not be unusual if a sense of living in an oasis of placid security surrounded by a desert of deprivation bred a defensive neurosis in the Tories there, inducing them to put their trust in people like Tebbit and Duncan Smith to represent their fear and grievances at Westminster and beyond.

But the Chingford Tories should temper any delight in their MP with caution. Inevitably, Duncan Smith has made some enemies on his way up and they will be looking for a chance to settle old scores. And then there is his rag-bag of a front bench, including the surprisingly resurrected Michael Howard, all of them watching and waiting for him to fail. The task he has taken on – the defeat of Blair’s government – is so massive that success at the next election would be unprecedented. The best he can aspire to, for years yet, is to dent Labour’s majority. If he can’t make that dent large enough to allow his party a real hope of returning to power in the near future he will probably be going the same way as Hague. One thing he must have learned by now is that he leads a party of ruthless in-fighters and back-stabbers who have sent better men than him marching off into the sunset.

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