The Tories in 2010: 'I'd put a fiver each way on Malcolm Rifkind'

The assumption that by 2006, Michael Howard - then aged 64 - will be gone, needs to be qualified by the possibility that he could still win the next election or that a close finish may encourage him to stay until the 2009-10 election which he could also win. But, whatever the outcome of the 2005 election, short of the repeat of the 2001 Tory disaster, I expect Mr Howard to remain in post for at least the first two years of the next parliament. This means that, by 2006, Michael Ancram and Tim Yeo would probably be out of the frame.

Do not write off the desire of the Tories to stick with the voices of experience before "skipping a generation" by opting for youth and freshness. They have been so scarred by their experiences under William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith that they will think long and hard before repeating any moves to back young whizz-kids or outsiders. Which is why an each-way fiver on either David Davis or Sir Malcolm Rifkind must be the safety-first options for any Tory MP who had previously had enough of youth, risk and inexperience. If Mr Howard is no longer in post in the run-up to the 2009-10 election, Mr Davis will be in his late 50s, and a newly reinvigorated Sir Malcolm, after his enforced eight-year sabbatical, will only be 58 when he returns as MP for Kensington and Chelsea in place of Michael Portillo.

Sir Malcolm will be one of the most experienced and respected figures on the Tory front bench figures during the course of the next five years and his return has the advantage that he is unsullied by any of the alarms and excursions of the years since 1997. His most potent asset is that he took an individual stance on the war in Iraq and would provide the opportunity for the party to break from its slavish adherence to the Government's war on terror strategy.

Mr Davis's immediate concern is to ensure victory in his constituency, where his once safe majority of 17,000 is now down to 1,903. But provided he survives, many will remember with gratitude his contribution to party unity last autumn by not contesting the leadership election. And if, in the meantime, he stacks up more political victories such as the ministerial scalp of Beverley Hughes, he will be in with a shout.

By then, of course, the young Turks will be circling. Liam Fox, the current co-chairman, will have become well known as a good television performer, and the 2005 election will have give him acres of publicity. By the time of the subsequent election, he will still be the right side of 50 - but a caveat must be entered: no party chairman has become party leader. Talking of others who are still nowhere near 50 leads us back to William Hague, currently 43. Mr Hague has matured in the years since he returned to the back benches. And remember that John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister, returned many years later to lead his party a second time after being a hopeless failure 20 years before.

For a short time last year, Oliver Letwin, the shadow Chancellor, was seen as a possible candidate but his star has waned since his premature announcement of Tory economic policy enabled Gordon Brown to steal his clothes on reducing the number of civil servants. If the Tories lose, I suspect that it will be Mr Letwin who will carry much of the can.

By restricting his Shadow Cabinet to only 12 members, Mr Howard has eclipsed a number of former rising stars who served in the Duncan Smith team and who entered Parliament in 1997 intake. This has meant that Tim Collins, Damian Green and Andrew Lansley, who previously had higher profiles under Mr Hague or Mr Duncan Smith, now have difficulty in making headlines.

As a consequence, more attention tends to be focused on the generation of MPs elected in the 2001 election. Of these, the brightest are David Cameron and George Osborne who are generally regarded as chiefs of tomorrow's whizz-kids. Both are highly able and personable. They remind me of the rising stars of my generation 25 years ago, such as David Mellor, Chris Patten and William Waldegrave. But golden boys often tend to inspire jealousy and make enemies of their dimmer colleagues.

It is possible, however, that the next Tory leader is not currently in Parliament. This is where my money goes - on Sir Malcolm. But if we are really into modern, fully paid-up whizz-kids, then watch out for Adam Afriyie, the black candidate for Windsor, Nicholas Boles, the gay candidate for Hove, Ed Vaizey, speech writer for Michael Howard, and Esther McVey, the daytime television presenter, who will be fast-tracked for promotion as soon as they are elected.