Divided, leaderless and devoid of ideas: are the Tories dying out?

Tories are a tribe. They need the feeling of belonging, a hierarchy, a Fuhrer. They've lost that

DID THE dodo have a premonition of its extinction? Maybe a dim suspicion that its dinner was getting harder to find or that those proud, useless wings were a bit of a drag. More likely, it just found itself expending more and more effort to less and less effect, until one day it woke up - or rather didn't - and was no longer there.

Faithful to this model, William Hague's party is using its energy to achieve next to nothing. It is a phantom Opposition which at times - the important times - barely seems to exist at all. New Labour has its ups and downs, its near-disaster in the Welsh devolution referendum, its Berniegate, Lobbygate and nasty wobbles on welfare reform. All natural fodder to keep the other side fed and watered. Yet the Conservatives remain thin and peaky. They seem to have locked themselves in a room, from which only Mr Hague emerges to make the odd pertinent attack at Prime Minister's Questions. He dances, like a faded beauty, to an empty theatre. The event goes wholly unregarded outside Westminster.

Ffion Hague, we are told, is to appear next month in different costumes for the party conference. Great excitement in the Tory ranks, where there is far more excitement at the prospect of encountering Mrs Hague than her husband. If they can't have the one-and-only couture-clad bossy blonde swinging a handbag, Ffion will do to remind them of that faded but not forgotten love affair.

The Conservative Party may be about to face its hungriest predator yet, in the shape of electoral reform. Lord Jenkins's recommendations for change in the voting system is on the way to being sealed by something far more potent than a kiss. By October, the Tory Party will thus have been apprised of the nature of Tony Blair's most serious attempt on its life. Neither STV nor the alternatives hold any thing but grief for Mr Hague. They can only tighten the bonds of affection between the Liberal Democrats and New Labour.

The real and urgent battle the Conservative Party faces is for its self- preservation. One assumes, while knowing little of the dodo's habits, that it was wise enough to refrain, when endangered, from attacking itself. The same cannot be said for the Tories who are heading for a showdown at next month's conference between Europhiles and the EMU-sceptic leadership.

The renegades are led by Michael Heseltine. Post-Government, post-second heart attack, post-leadership hopes, he has adopted Janis Joplin's anthem "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose". He is joined by the irrepressible Kenneth Clarke, who has rather a lot to gain by undermining Mr Hague's authority with an attack on his flagship policy. Do they care if their actions fatally weaken the Conservative Party as we now know it? Not a bit.

The depth of the Tory split over Europe has reconciled the pro-EMU section of the party to the idea of breaking away into a kind of Christian Democratic party, at peace with the centre-left and with a few grace-and -favour jobs as a reward. Right-wing Eurosceptics would be left to howl in the wilderness.

The long lens of history suggests that, however great the strain, this divorce will not happen. A party which survived the Corn Laws split boasts a certain historical robustness. The theory of a permanent Conservative Party holds that democracies always feature a block of the right and a block of the left, although what they stand for may change periodically.

But strong parties do dissolve. Germany's most powerful conservative alliance, the Centre Party, a force whose rise and reach dismayed Bismarck at the end of the 19th century because it meant the end of the old politics of caste, crumbled because it failed to contain the rise of Nazism and thus lost its moral authority. There is no mainstream party of economic liberalism, or right-wing moral conservatism in Germany today.

The other reason I am beginning to doubt the sustainability of the Conservative Party is the extent to which it is dwindling in social and cultural confidence. Tories are a tribe. They need the feeling of belonging, a hierarchy - a Fuhrer.

They have lost all that. The young hopefuls have mothballed the chalk- stripe suit that was once the uniform of their well-drilled army. They have taken to wearing harshly geometric spectacles, swoon at the very mention of Peter Mandelson's name and dub themselves Mod Cons. Seeing in their party elders only models of failure and bitterness, they choose role models among their enemies.

The apeing of New Labour style is optimistically described as a manifesto of modernisation by Mr Hague's strategists. But it conceals a crisis of self-belief and a deep lack of certainty about what to do next - indeed, what to be next. A Government committed, as this one is, to referenda on voting reform and on entry into EMU, gives the Opposition the prospect of regaining a foothold in the big arguments. Mr Hague should have the chance soon to attack the Government on two changes whose benefits are at best uncertain. But he can only profit from these openings if he can first establish himself as the undisputed leader of a disputatious party, and build up a team capable of countering New Labour's formidable powers of persuasion.

But the extent to which the Tory Party has, in the last year, lost its identity startles me. In the run-up to the 1997 election, I was working at The Spectator. In High Tory fashion, it was official policy there to treat New Labour, its personnel and all its works, with total disdain. When I read my old publication now, I am amused by the desperate desire to claim intimacy with the more noisy characters in the Government's penumbra. They are the same people who were not allowed through the tradesman's entrance in my day. We must rejoice over every sinner that sees the light, but if I were a rank and file Tory, I would discern this panting chumminess to be a sign of weakness.

What has happened to all my old friends, the Tory attack dogs? The Conservative organisation in the press used to be formidable. Now, many of those who used to sink canines into the Labour ankle muse that, all in all, this isn't such a bad government. Either that, or they succumb to a kind of impossibilism which wants the peace process called off, the Real IRA taken out by the SAS and Britain out of the EU tomorrow. Recently, a Daily Telegraph leader denounced Tory Europhiles as "Vichyite". Keep up the sense of proportion, lads.

The Tory debate is becoming curiouser and curiouser. Even at its most stimulating, it bears no earthly relevance to events. Like Old Labour in the early 1980s, Tories prefer to ignore the immediate threat to their continued existence, and flit around an intellectual never-never land. The Telegraph's proprietor, Conrad Black, has provided a new rallying standard by arguing that Britain should forsake the EU for a future in the North American free-trade bloc. It is an intriguing idea. But it is also very unlikely to ever happen in the real world. Conservatives are dreaming their lives away. I am beginning to doubt whether they even want to wake up.

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