- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2001

In a week defined by nightmarish horror, an event of potentially immense significance took place in Britain, Iain Duncan Smith became upset leader of the opposition Conservative Party.

Even in Britain, the reports of Mr. Duncan Smith's decisive popular win last Thursday among 250,000 Conservative, or Tory, party members was muted, overshadowed by the awful events in New York and elsewhere on Sept. 11.

Britain has a fraction of the global power it once did, and these days largely appears significant only as the most loyal and uncritical ally of the United States. Mr. Duncan Smith is, in political terms, a "nobody." He has never held cabinet-level office or been seen seriously as a national leader. He inherits a party that is a miserable rump of its former greatness.

The Conservatives now only hold less than one-quarter of all the seats in the House of Commons, the main chamber of the British Parliament. They have been devastated at the polls in two elections in a row. Prime Minister Tony Blair and his "new" Labor Party only three months ago won a mandate enabling them to stay in power with their enormous majority in the House of Commons for a full five years. So how can Mr. Duncan Smith be anything more than an irrelevance?

And yet, there is a strange air of quiet, decisive destiny around Mr. Duncan Smith. He appears tailor-made by destiny to be the quiet, under-rated, unassuming rock of stability, designed to lead his nation through dark, even terrible times, as yet unimagined.

He takes over the Conservative Party under the most dramatic, awful circumstances of any party political leader in British history since Winston Churchill became war premier in May 1940. Churchill took office just after the Nazis launched an annihilating attack to smash France and sweep the British Army off the continent of Europe.

Mr. Duncan Smith also became Tory leader under the most inauspicious political circumstances for one of Britain's two major political parties since Clement Atlee became Labor Party leader, again after two catastrophic landslide election defeats in a row, in 1935.

No one expected Atlee to stay leader for more than a year or two, let alone ever hold major office. But he became Churchill's powerful, loyal, immensely able and effective deputy through World War II for five years. And he then served as prime minister himself for another six, winning two general elections in a row the first by record landslide figures, in the process.

Like Atlee, Mr. Duncan Smith inherits a demoralized, shriveled and humiliated party. Like Atlee, he is a former exceptionally able and experienced British army officer. Like Atlee he is bald, quiet and unassuming. Like Atlee he is a devout Christian and British patriot in an era when both those virtues are widely seen in his own country as ridiculous, if not contemptible just as they were in the 1930s.

And like Atlee, and Margaret Thatcher when she became Conservative Party leader in the mid-1970s, Mr. Duncan Smith faces a long haul of four or five years in the political wilderness of opposition to rebuild his party's credibility and establish his own in the eyes of the British people.

Mr. Duncan Smith is no Churchill, or Margaret Thatcher. He is not a charismatic, powerful, mesmerizing speaker or warm, emotional personality. He is quiet, reserved, even cold, perhaps shy; certainly shrewd and appraising. These were Atlee's qualities, too. But Mr. Duncan Smith is, in his quiet way, exceptionally effective and decisive. Nobody among the myriad British political commentators expected him to do as well as he did in the first round of party leadership voting.

In an age of long-established peace, prosperity and liberal platitudes, Mr. Duncan Smith appears even more out of fashion than Margaret Thatcher did a quarter of a century ago. His background as a professional soldier in the British army is supposed to make him unelectable, raising echoes of fascism, militarism and military dictator Oliver Cromwell, who ruled Britain 350 years ago.

Britain's army and its soldiers have not played the slightest direct political role in the nation since the Curragh Mutiny in Ireland of 1914, when senior officers threatened to resign their commissions rather than accept orders to coerce the loyalist unionists in Ulster. British officers almost never wear their uniforms off duty, but dress modestly and unfashionably. And Cromwell, after all, has been dead for three-and-a-half centuries.

Political leaders with a heroic military background, however, have even come back into fashion. Paddy Ashdown, a swashbuckling former special forces commando rebuilt the fractured Liberal Democrats in the past decade into an impressive national political force. Mr. Duncan Smith can play into that deeply established, highly favorable image and enjoy the power of that precedent.

Mr. Blair has been an able, confident, even masterful leader through good times. But he has shown no sign of the inner toughness and fortitude to lead the nation through dark ones. Mr. Duncan Smith like Atlee, like Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s and like U.S. President Harry S. Truman in 1945 enjoys the vast, overlooked advantage of being grossly underestimated.

He may turn out to be the best news to come out of a hellish week for America and the world.

Martin Sieff is managing editor for analysis for United Press International.

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