Analysis: 'Unite or die' PR tactic may save IDS

Since Iain Duncan Smith's 'unite or die' speech, press speculation of a party in crisis continues unabated. But, as former Tory media head Amanda Platell argues, the beleaguered Tory leader may, this time, have got his PR tactics just right.

In politics as in the commercial world, strategies are all too often retrospective analyses. Actions are taken in haste, without planning, to deal with a crisis - one action triggers another, and another, until we have a series of events that are later written up by the commentators as 'the strategy'.

We witnessed such a series of ad hoc events during the past two weeks for the Conservative Party, the week Iain Duncan Smith outed his Tory enemies and almost ousted himself in the process.

What we saw was a hastily choreographed performance of the Quiet Man.

At Bournemouth, the Tory leader warned us never to underestimate his determination and he has not disappointed.

In fact, he has been quietly relentless and ruthless in a way few would have expected.

What looked like chaos now has the semblance of order. He has faced down his enemies in his own party, notably Michael Portillo and Ken Clarke, and his critics in the media, preferring a head-on attack to the tactics of his former leader William Hague.

There are only two options open when one's leadership is seriously undermined.

The first is to cut off the oxygen supply and take cover until the crisis is starved of air.

Eventually it extinguishes itself. This course of action was the least confrontational and the one favoured by Hague.

The second is to walk into the fire, which IDS did last week with his 'unite or die' speech. IDS then instructed his advisers to name and shame the plotters, knowing full well that the one thing the Conservative Party hates above all else is disloyalty to its leader - even if they don't particularly rate him themselves.

IDS was going over the heads of the Parliamentary party and making a direct appeal to the rank-and-file membership to back him. This served to put enormous pressure on the rebel MPs to behave, a pressure that can only really be brought to bear by those who have the direct power to deselect.

The biggest problem was that the communications strategy was not briefed out in advance to key journalists, and that is not the fault of the advisers but of an inexperienced leader.

In a crisis, you must carry the key opinion-formers with you. Few mistakes are more disastrous than allowing the media pack to think they have a resignation on their hands and then to disappoint. It just makes them angry.

If the strategy had been explained beforehand, at least to the key political editors and broadcasters, IDS would have had a fairer hearing on day one.

Instead they wrote about chaos and crisis and were counting the days on one hand that the Tory leader had left.

But let's look at IDS's tactics. A surprise attack followed up by a series of grenades lobbed into the individual enemy camps, after which he pushed forward relentlessly, with an interview in The Daily Telegraph, the newspaper most read by the party membership, and the next day Breakfast with Frost.

On and on he pushed, and by the end of two weeks IDS was looking better for it.

But was he right to hold his 'unite or die' press conference with no questions?

IDS has taken a lot of advice from those in the Bush administration.

How often do you see the US President wade into the middle of a howling press pack? He conducts a controlled TV event, usually at a lectern, gives his sound bites to the nation then departs.

IDS's message was clear - unite or die - and it was carried clearly on the bulletins. Let's not forget that research shows punters take far less notice of political commentators and far more of the simple sound bite of the politician.

Many have a grudging respect that IDS was prepared to take on his enemies, those hell-bent on pursuing the Portillista agenda that Lord Tebbit described recently as the 'Tory Trots'.

As with Hague, they have now executed the same ruthless strategy of destabilisation behind IDS's back.

The real problem is that they are in danger of not only destroying the current leader, but of destroying the party itself.

In the past two weeks, IDS has shown courage and the promised determination.

He has certainly done enough to secure a breathing space, but for how long? Whether this will turn out to be the worst ten days for the Tory leader or his finest, only time will tell.

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