A campaign that inflicted deep and lasting scars

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Indy Politics

The tragic events in the United States, completely beyond the Conservatives' control, ensured a subdued and sombre end last night to what had been a bitter and divisive Tory leadership contest.

The shock to the political system in Britain caused by the terrorist attacks means that recriminations over the Tory contest will be postponed. But some Tories fear the bloody battle of the summer will leave deep and festering wounds.

The surprise elimination from the race of Michael Portillo, the possible compromise candidate, left the party's 328,000 members with a stark choice between the two Tory tribes ­ a right-wing Eurosceptic in Iain Duncan Smith and a One-Nation Europhile in Kenneth Clarke. "We are two parties underneath," one Tory MP admitted yesterday.

When the result was announced last night, the right-wing party won a clear victory. Now Mr Duncan Smith's task is to bind the wounds and, despite his conciliatory words for Mr Clarke last night, it will not be easy.

The two tribes also provoked the most dramatic moment of the marathon party leadership race. When Margaret Thatcher declared her support for Mr Duncan Smith, and said that Mr Clarke would lead the party to "disaster", her successor, John Major, finally released all his pent-up anger about the way that she and her acolytes had undermined his Premiership.

The battle of the Tory dinosaurs may have provided great theatre for the Westminster village, but their attempts to rewrite history reminded the voters that the party had not yet put its act of regicide against Baroness Thatcher behind it. "The grandparents ruined the show; they should have kept off the stage," said one senior Tory.

Although Mr Duncan Smith started the race as a 50-1 outsider, he ran an assured campaign. When things went wrong, such as when one of his campaign members was unmasked as a supporter of the British National Party, he acted quickly to put them right. He fought a canny campaign, exposing the weak points of his rivals without saying too much about himself and deliberately understating his level of support among MPs to achieve the momentum he needed.

Mr Duncan Smith was remarkably confident of winning throughout. In contrast, Mr Portillo started as the favourite but never felt comfortable. His agonising over whether to stand was real. Privately, he guessed he would not win the leadership after he received the backing of only 49 MPs in the first round. Although two-thirds of the Shadow Cabinet rushed to support him, this alienated backbenchers, who felt they would have little chance of promotion if the top jobs were already sewn up.

Michael Ancram was eliminated from the race in round one. Then David Davis withdrew and shrewdly threw his weight behind Mr Duncan Smith. Tory MPs had to choose two names to go into the decisive ballot of party members, and Mr Portillo ­ by just one vote ­ was the odd one out. In the end, his defeat came as a relief to him. If he could not have a clear mandate to change the party, he did not want to lead it.

As Mr Duncan Smith and Mr Clarke prepared for the final shoot-out, the opinion polls suggested Mr Clarke was more popular among the general public. He gambled that the "armchair Tories", as opposed to the Eurosceptic-dominated activists, would vote for a winner, and was buoyed by the larger-than-expected turn-out of 79 per cent.

Yet last night's result suggests the less active Tories were just as worried about Europe as the activists. The mood among many was "stop Clarke" rather than "vote Duncan Smith". The Tories are better at knowing what they are against rather than what they are for; that is why outsiders win the party's leadership elections. In 1990, John Major was the "stop Heseltine" candidate after Margaret Thatcher's fall. In 1997, William Hague was the man to "stop Clarke". Now Mr Duncan Smith has blocked him for the final time.

Mr Clarke paid the price for refusing to trim his pro-European sails. Like Mr Portillo, he wanted the leadership on his own terms or not at all. Even when he agreed a script with his campaign team, he did not always stick to it, preferring his gut instincts. Mr Clarke was too vague on policy. His prescription for the nation's ills was to talk about his wealth of experience in big Whitehall departments.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned from the election. Everyone agrees the contest was much too long. Next time the election will take about a month or six weeks.

The high turn-out is a big plus and shows that people will take part in politics when they enjoy real influence. At next month's Tory conference in Blackpool, there will be demands for party members to choose from three or four candidates in future elections.

Inevitably, there were teething troubles in the first leadership election to be decided by Tory members. The number of ballot papers sent out was quietly raised from 318,000 to 327,000 after thousands of complaints from disenfranchised members.

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