Michael Brown: How Ted Heath inspired us young Tories

He encouraged us to believe we too could become MPs in a modern, meritocratic party

His meritocratic appeal during that leadership battle (against Reggie Maudling and Enoch Powell) attracted the support of both Margaret Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph. He was the first Tory leader of the 20th century not to have come from the aristocracy. He was a grammar-school boy and his humble origins showed that the lack of inherited wealth was no longer a bar to reaching the highest position in what was then seen as the party of the rich, privileged and the grouse moors.

But the symbolism of Heath's election went far beyond the parliamentary party. I was a 14-year-old secondary-modern schoolboy failure at the time, but interested in politics. The outcome of the 1970 election, held while I was at York University, gave my generation of Tory students, such as Tony Baldry at Sussex and David Davis at Warwick, easy access to Heath, and it was he who gave us the encouragement to believe that we too could become MPs in his modern meritocratic Tory party.

It took me only a further nine years to get to Westminster and, although I was a Thatcherite, Heath seemed pleased that it was he who had prompted my early political ambitions. That did not stop him from telling me on one occasion in the Commons' Smoking Room, "that was a dreadful speech you made this afternoon", but the twinkle in his eye and the offer of a malt whisky indicated a softer side that tragically he kept too well hidden. When I subsequently became a whip, he said ,"I see they've shut you up at last."

Davis was particularly inspired by Heath, and became his national chairman of the Federation of Conservative Students. Davis was fêted and regularly given access to Downing Street during his tenure. It is fair to say that Heath's personal story, more than Thatcher's, encouraged Davis to seek a political career.

Heath was the first party leader to decide to attend the annual party conference for the duration. His predecessors only turned up to a rally on the last day, when they would begin their speech along the lines "I understand you've had a very good conference". Although his Education Secretary, Mrs Thatcher, addressed the 1970 conference wearing a hat, such headgear at these events had been consigned to history by the time of his departure in 1975. Today's Tory modernisers seek to do to the tie what he did to Tory ladies' hats.

The current battle for the Tory leadership is far more confused than 40 years ago. "Take-your-tie-off-Tories", like the David Cameron set, believe modernisation is a metropolitan affair, based around Notting Hill. But it still retains the old exclusivity bred by Eton and permits the country weekend shooting parties to reassure the aristocratic tastes of Nicholas Soames, who is also in the set.

The ultra-modernising, gay, candidate Alan Duncan has beaten a retreat, but not before issuing a barbed attack on the "Tory Taliban", by which he means the Achilles heel of Tory social attitudes. "Censorious judgmentalism from the moralising wing, which treats half our own countrymen as enemies, must be rooted out" he wrote in a recent newspaper article. Yes, the party needs to rid itself of its "nasty" tendency, but the intensity of such navel-gazing threatens to make the healing process after this bruising period far more difficult.

But Mr Duncan and Mr Cameron miss the essential attractions of Heath to the Tories 40 years ago. First, he made no public attacks on any section of the party - indeed he made no speeches in support of his leadership whatsoever. It was his concentration solely on his Treasury brief that commended him during the leadership election - something repeated a decade later by Thatcher when she challenged Heath in 1975.

David Davis seems to recognise that he too must first be seen as a figure of substance by knuckling down to his shadow Home Office responsibilities. Mr Cameron, meanwhile, needs to master his education brief before rambling into the Blairite mush of "social entrepreneurs", for which he called, in a speech yesterday, for state funding.

Heath's vision for Europe and Thatcher's subsequent vision for the British economy made both compelling candidates for the Tory leadership in their respective days. Their clear visions for their country were born out of their political experiences and early hardships. The formula this time round need be no different.