As Tory MPs toast their future leader, out in the shires the party is quietly withering away

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Westminster's Conservatives may have found a reason to crack open the champagne, but as the dregs from Tory leadership contenders' drinks receptions are poured away, the party in the country has little to celebrate.

Far from looking bright-eyed towards the future, the activists and the die-hard Conservative voters have barely begun to come to terms with their loss.

Which leader do they believe can return them to power? There are at least as many opinions as candidates. Do they want a vote next time around? Some say yes, some no, some do not have the confidence even to express an opinion.

While officials at Central Office talk boldly of rebirth, reform and a new, more modern party, membership continues to dwindle and ageing members to die.

Trevor Hawkins, chairman of the Suffolk Coastal constituency association, John Gummer's seat, says that at 65 he is sometimes the youngest person at a meeting. "The membership is healthy but we lose people. Each week we have death reports," he said.

Coffee mornings, always the mainstay of party fund-raising, cannot attract the young, he adds. Branches in the area have been asked to look at the kind of functions they hold.

In Billericay, the Essex home of the Euro-sceptic Theresa Gorman, the story is similar. The constituency secretary, Carole Morris, agrees that going out and asking people to join would help, but beyond that she is short of ideas.

"I don't know how you do that. We have said we need to make an effort and there's been a few opinions about how to go about it. We haven't got beyond the talking stage," she said.

But far from despairing, the retired businessmen and the professionals who have kept the ship afloat for years have crossed their fingers and are clinging to the belief that, in the immortal words of Labour's campaign theme, things can only get better.

Mrs Morris actually sees a positive side to her party's crushing defeat at the polls. "When you're at the bottom there's only one way to go," she says. "We got a Labour-controlled district council, a Lib-Lab county council and a Labour government. What can we be blamed for?"

She is not alone. The message from the party is that Labour won the election on account of a national desire for change, that Tony Blair is certain to mess up and the Conservatives will be back in power in 2002.

Councillor David Roy leads the Conservatives on Birmingham city council. There, 13 members form the rump of a group which used to hold power with 68 councillors in the early 1980s. He believes the pendulum will swing back.

"The vote wasn't so much pro-Labour as complacency and indifference towards the Conservatives. Both our local council and some of the central government are there by default," he says.

"I think people became slightly weary of us. The policies can't have been too wrong because Mr Blair has pinched most of them."

On the future of the party at national level, there is little consensus except on the need for change. Party activists feel, almost to a man and woman, that their views have not been heard. Councillors say their warnings about the disastrous poll tax went unheeded, while business people feel their needs came second to wider political considerations.

The annual conference is just a forum for mass self-congratulation. But while some call for a "one member one vote" leadership election next time and more debate on policy issues, others are not sure. One long-term activist said the job of choosing a leader was best left to MPs.

There are rays of light. The Conservative students are opening new branches while north of the border the Scottish party talks of sweeping reform. Young members on the ground are full of ideas about adopting the technology and PR know-how employed by Labour.

But many of the faithful seem to be sitting still and hoping for a miracle. Perhaps the party will have to wait until 2002 for a shock that will really galvanise it into action.