If the Conservatives were a serious political party (like Labour say, or Natural Law) this contest would have ended last night. Unable to stomach Ken Clarke (the adult choice), 20 or so of the less ideological Redwood supporters - knowing after the first ballot that he could never win - would have thrown their weight behind William Hague in the second round. After all, their man had already proved (by beating both Lilley and Howard) that he was the champion of the Tory right, and had ensured that his views on matters European would have to be consulted by the new leader. What was now important was the manner of a Hague victory.
But this does not appear to be a serious party. It was bad enough that the electorate should be so small and unrepresentative, and that the voting method should be so arcane. These legacies of two complacent decades might just have been overcome by a steeliness of purpose. Instead, the division of the votes ensures that Mr Hague, should he emerge victorious tomorrow, manages both to look like everyone's second choice and - simultaneously - a prisoner of the Redwoodite right. It is hard to imagine a result that could have made Hague's accession seem less assured, short of making him pose naked on top of the statue of Richard the Lionheart.
If nothing else though, the "sod off" vote has resolved one question that has been lying around since the election: was this Tory defeat more akin to the Labour debacle of1979, or that of1983? Would it be the beginning of a process of renewal, or usher in a period of infighting and political cretinism? In 1979, following the 30-seat Thatcher victory, a large section of the Labour Party (and, to an extent, people like me) got it into their heads that the problem had been an absence of socialist zeal. What was needed was import controls, increased taxation and workers' councils. So for three years the party and the electorate ceased to exist in the same cosmos as each other. The landslide defeat of 1983 cured most Labour supporters of these delusions. They set out on the Kinnockite voyage to dock once more with the voters. But it took 14 more years and many shed tears to succeed.
Right now the momentum in the Tory parliamentary party is with the zealots. The youngest, most vigorous members are on the right. There is no Labour equivalent of such strange young grey-haired fundamentalists as Territorial Army officer and Prayer Book Society member Desmond Swayne, or ex Tory student John Bercow. Emboldened by the suicidal support of great Conservative newspapers, they are optimistic that they can at worst affect, and at best inherit. The rest of us know that they can only destroy.
After the figures were announced Mr Hague swept forward to the waiting cameras at the St Stephen's entrance. But he could not tell a tale of determination and change, nor outline his strategy for taking the party from woe to weal. No, this was his statement of triumph: "I'm delighted to have the support of 62 colleagues and to have gained more support over the last week than any other candidate." From 41 to 62 in a week. Whoopee.Reuse content