Iain Duncan Smith must have been called many things in his life but yesterday's description of him by Anthony Steen MP as “murally dyslexic” must have been a new one. Mr Steen was kind enough to spell out the phrase's meaning – ”It means he doesn't see the writing on the wall”. Not very respectful of his leader by a rank–and–file MP. But yesterday respect was not much in evidence in the Conservative Parliamentary Party. In his statement at a hurriedly–called press meeeting, Mr Smith accused those MPs who had ignored the three–line voting whip he had imposed on the Adoption Bill of being part of a conspiracy against his leadership.

Michael Portillo reacted furiously: “I voted against a three–line whip for the first time in my life because I believed it was wrong and inconsistent to use coercion on adoption.” And he said that Mr Smith's version of events was ”an unwarranted misinterpretation”. Another “conspirator”, Francis Maude, said that Mr Smith was hardly in a position to criticise MPs for ignoring the whip because “he voted against John Major's government 50 times in rebellion against the Maastricht Treaty.

It was left to Ann Widdecombe to inject a little common sense. Comparing the Conservative's current crisis with Labour's in the 1980s she said that MPs needed to restrain themselves because ”if you're not in power you can't do anything about anything”. Tonight Mr Smith has to speak to the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers. A tough assignment which he cannot afford to flunk.

Ray Fleming

Bad advice

Ariel Sharon is a plain speaker and we should be grateful for that. His assertion, in an interview with The Times, that Iran should be targetted ”the day after Iraq has been dealt with” because ”it is behind all the terror in the world” provides an invaluable insight into the mind of this dangerous man. Will President Bush now re–think his anti–terrorism strategy, recognising that the priority given to Al–Queda, the Taleban and Afghanistan was a mistake because Iran is the real problem? Perhaps, even at this late stage, attention should be switched from Baghdad to Teheran?

Mr Sharon's words will be heard sympathetically in Washington because Iran now seems the most difficult member of ”the axis of evil” to understand. It is relatively easy for Mr Bush to “read” Iraq and North Korea but Iran is more complex.

The reality is that Iran is passing through a testing process of change which is pitting the general population and the elected reformist President Khatami against the deeply conservative judicial and religious authorities.

The United States should recognise that the Iranian people have twice voted substantially in favour of President Khatami and that he should be given the support he needs to continue his fight against entrenched autocracy. America's policy towards Iran is a classic instance of the Bush administration's inability to respond flexibly to countries undergoing painful change which, broadly, is moving in the “right” direction. Mr Sharon's analysis should be rejected, not embraced.