Leading Article: This mayoral contest is damaging both main parties

AS THE twists and turns of the London mayor story continue to imitate art, two observations arise. The first is that the Conservative Party is in deeper trouble than anyone realised. William Hague is in many ways an admirable politician, but it is becoming clearer by the day that he is not the right politician for the Conservatives at this juncture of their great party's history. And he has lost a great deal of credibility in the London mayoral imbroglio. Not only did he endorse Jeffrey Archer in unwisely fulsome terms, but he also made a serious error of judgement in supporting the ban on the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools - an issue that came up because Steven Norris opposed it.

Now Mr Norris has been made to change trains again, while Mr Hague is left looking foolish. His only bulwark is the lack of other plausible leadership candidates. We have commented before that if anyone in the Tory party thinks Michael Portillo is the answer, then it must have been a silly question. The Conservatives' malaise goes a great deal deeper than the mere choice of an individual to lead them. There is space in British politics for a party of moderate British nationalism, were it to be combined with a celebration of the British qualities of tolerance and pragmatism in domestic policy, but the niche for a party that is at the same time xenophobic, Europhobic and homophobic is, thankfully, a small and shrinking one.

The second observation is that the problems both main parties have had over choosing their candidates have shed unexpected light on the future of political parties themselves.

It was one of Tony Blair's original arguments for directly elected mayors for big cities, that they might attract candidates from outside conventional party politics and thus increase the quality of the gene pool from which the voters would be able to select. But he was never clear whether he favoured individuals running without the benefit of party labels altogether. Now we face the prospect of two of the most credible candidates, Ken Livingstone and Steve Norris, running as independents.

If that were to happen, however, it would represent the failure of two particular political parties, rather than the failure of political parties in general. Even in the United States, candidates run overwhelmingly under party colours. Parties may be organised hypocrisies, but at least they are organised. A free-for-all on the basis of name-recognition would hardly be a democratic advance.

Both Labour and the Conservatives must look to their internal democratic systems and, more broadly, their ability to recruit the most able candidates from all walks of life.

Meanwhile, Susan Kramer, the Liberal Democrat, will now be the second best-known official party candidate.