An election with the wrong candidates

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The Tories have embarked on a funny type of conflict. For months they have been sniping and preparing for an all-out conflagration. Yet once John Major declared war by resigning the leadership, what happened? Just an escalation. The big guns, which could have settled the matter, have stayed out, waiting a moment that may not now come if John Major wins the first ballot on Tuesday. The danger is that, as a result of not fielding all their forces, the Tories could return to barracks next week only to face fresh guerrilla action within a few months or less.

One of the problems is John Redwood. He was billed as a fresh, young general who would light the fuses within the party and explode the myths of post-Thatcherite Toryism. But instead of providing a compelling critique of the party's difficulties, Mr Redwood has offered a crude programme of anti-Europeanism, unaffordable Reaganite tax cuts, subsidies for the middle classes (and even the Queen's yacht, Britannia) plus a dose of authoritarianism: more closed-circuit cameras and the return of capital punishment.

Mr Redwood's offensive was brave. Until now, Euro-sceptic arguments have not be subject to close scrutiny. When Margaret Thatcher was prime minister her anti-European attitudes were kept in check by Nigel Lawson, her Chancellor, and by Sir Geoffrey Howe, her Foreign Secretary. The party has long needed an open and no-holes-barred debate on the subject.

But Mr Redwood has, quite frankly, been a disappointment. He has not done justice either to his own intellect or to the vibrancy of debate that characterises the Tory right-wing. This section of the party is wrestling with the lessons to be learnt from Newt Gingrich's election victories. It is groping towards a new purpose, namely minimalist government, stripped- down bureaucracy, ultra low taxation, personal insurance rather than state support. It is also seeking to redefine the British nation in a post-imperial age. We may not like its answers, because they verge on the xenophobic and are socially divisive. But at least there is a serious discussion taking place. The intellectual right is a far more fertile source of new ideas about history, philosophy and political futures than the Tory left.

The Prime Minister emerged smiling and relaxed at the end of the week. He may well have been saved by Mr Redwood: victory over him would give him a mandate that defeating a "stalking horse" could never provide. But the Prime Minister's smiles were not matched by any substantial improvement in his performance. True, he spoke well in the Commons on Thursday, cracked a few good jokes and dealt well with Tony Blair. But his chief election promise - to stick to his old style of governing - does not address the justified complaint that Mr Major is failing to provide strong leadership and a clear sense of direction.

The Prime Minister's low-key, consensual approach to politics has its virtues. His strengths have been demonstrated in the Northern Ireland peace process: Mr Major's deep conviction that conflict and violence are unnecessary aberrations in normal life has helped him patiently draw the various parties together. His style also originally endeared him to a party that was tired of Margaret Thatcher's domineering approach. And Mr Major is good at working out technical solutions to particular questions of government. But with the Tories at an all-time low in the polls, and party discipline fragmenting, the quietly-spoken Mr Major seems unable to generate the charisma or sense of purpose needed to raise morale. He is incapable of ushering in the new Tory party.

The inevitable conclusion is that we do not have the right candidates up for election. Mr Major would, of course, prefer to avoid another ballot. But unless Michael Heseltine and Michael Portillo enter the race, the party will never confront the full nature of its problems, which are based on both a lack of identity and direction and poor leadership. It will be unable to move on.

Kenneth Clarke could have been the man to help his party find new direction, if his Europhile sympathies had not made him unacceptable. He has proved himself a radical on crucial issues such as tackling entrenched special interests in the education system and the NHS. His health service reforms, now largely accepted by Labour, are a mark of his ability to overcome sustained opposition. His thinking about the role of the welfare state in facilitating rapid economic change, set out in last year's Mais lecture, represent the best of the scant intellectual development among Tory left wingers. As Chancellor he has restored the Government's economic credibility in the wake of Britain's undignified exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

Even if Mr Clarke does not stand, we still need the two Michaels. The possibility of Mr Heseltine as prime minister sends a frisson of excitement through the Tories, deprived for five years of a passionate leader. He may not have a clear project for his party, but his personality masks that inadequacy and, as a poll in this week's Economist shows, he would be an electoral asset. Mr Portillo, for his part, promises to revisit the right-wing revolution that seemed to have run its course when Mrs Thatcher was ousted in 1990. His candidature would be backed by more than the band of political deadbeats that surround Mr Redwood.

Next week we need the opportunity to hear different programmes set out by these two men waiting in the wings. If they do not play their part in a conclusive leadership battle, the Tory party cannot expect to heal itself. It will merely limp along until the next explosion.