Twenty years ago, Denis Healey had a favourite way of comparing the Labour and Tory parties. He would liken Labour to a large, disorderly family from a rough neighbourhood. After the pubs finally chucked them out, they would all lay into one another. The neighbours were inured to brawling, ambulances and paddywagons. By the end of the night, half the family would be in hospital; the other half in the cells. But no one was ever killed.
The home life of the Tory party was entirely different. It was conducted with suburban propriety, behind privet hedges and prim curtains. No sirens ever disturbed the Tories' neighbourhood. Yet if you kept a careful watch during the dark, small hours, you would see surreptitious figures in the back garden, burying bodies.
Over the years, there were changes. In the Blairite Labour Party, they no longer dared to commit breaches of peace. By the Nineties, the Tories were much more likely to be the recipients of a noise abatement order. Now, however, that may be about to alter. There are still a few Tory dissidents, drawn from the pissed off, the passed over and the chronically eccentric. Such characters had actually been looking forward to the three months' mayhem of a full-blown leadership campaign. But they would find it hard to bring their numbers up to double figures; harder still to win any sympathy from their colleagues. To its surprise but also to its pleasure, the Conservative Party finds itself in the firm grip of agreement and harmony, with discipline and order to follow.
Michael Howard will still have to deal with the odd awkward party matter. Under the letter of the new rules, the sole candidate becomes leader by acclamation. But this is not exactly the spirit of the rules, which did leave the final decision to the party membership. That said, there is not much sign of the members objecting. The Tory MPs to whom I spoke over the weekend reported broadly the same reaction in their patch: "Alright, you've made your choice. Now get on with it.''
Even so, Mr Howard feels obliged to give the members a degree of say. He is safe to do so. There is no risk of a rejection. The only embarrassment will come from the size of his majority, which is likely to reach levels not seen since the final East European elections of the Soviet era.
At some stage, the Tory party ought to recast its rules. Though it may require an authority which could only come from the recapture of 10 Downing Street, a party leader will have to explain to the constituencies why the decision as to the leadership must be left to the MPs.
The new and supposedly more democratic rules, which date from 1998, were born out of opportunism, numerical weakness, demoralisation, trendiness and Archie Norman. William Hague, a leader who knew that he had enemies in the parliamentary party, wanted to make it harder for anyone to challenge him. After an overwhelming election defeat which reduced their ranks to record lows, Tory MPs knew that their prestige had never been more diminished among party activists, many of whom still bewailed the overthrow of Mrs Thatcher in a parliamentary coup.
So it seemed wise to placate the members by giving them more power. This was also the fashionable way to behave; democracy is always a cunning disguise for vacuous thinking. Which brings us to Archie Norman. Mr Norman, the most brilliant baked beans salesman since HJ Heinz the First, brought a supermarket tycoon's self-confidence to politics, at a moment when few other Tories had any confidence at all. The Shadow Cabinet listened to him. That was a mistake. A management consultant, Archie Norman may regard himself as a disciple of McKinsey. He is not. He is a disciple of Lenin, at least as regards his concept of the party. Lenin believed that Communist Party members possessed a higher political understanding and should direct the rest of society.
Watered-down versions of Leninism infected every socialist party in the world, but it has never been the Tory view. Leninists may regard party members as the vanguard of history. To sensible Tories, they are the garage mechanics of electoral politics. Because they are political activists, which marks them out from the rest of mankind, they tend to underestimate the difficulty of broadening the Tory base. MPs who have to win and hold their seats will be more sensitive to the mood of the wider electorate. That is why Tory MPs, and they alone, should choose their leader, whose primary function is to win elections.
In desperate circumstances, however, short-term electoral panic could cloud judgement. This is why it has only just become safe to return the leadership decision to Westminster. There was indeed a moment when the party had reason to be grateful to its members and suspicious of its MPs. Back in 2001, left to themselves, the MPs might have chosen Jacques Delors as the Tory leader. In the final parliamentary ballot, M. Delors, or Kenneth Clarke as he calls himself in the UK, came top of the poll with 59 votes. The late IDS was second, with 54. Michael Portillo won 53. If the choice had been down to MPs, some Portillistas, discombobulated by their idol's implosion, might have voted for anything. If Ken Clarke had become leader, he would have gone straight on to the attack against Tony Blair, for not doing enough to abolish the pound. The Tory party would have been hopelessly split and incapable of defending vital national causes. It may be scant consolation for IDS at the moment, but he did play a crucial historical role. He saw off Mr Clarke, and if that were still the only choice today, the party should hope for the same outcome.
Fortunately, however, no Euro-federalist will ever again be a serious candidate for the Tory leadership. That argument lies in the party's wake. So does much else. Michael Howard will not only be elected leader by an overwhelming majority. In the immediate aftermath, he will have more power than he will ever enjoy again, until and unless he becomes Prime Minister.
It is up to him to use that power. On Thursday, he made a good start in the speech that opened - and effectively closed - his leadership campaign. In it, he used generous language to set out a broad vision, and seemed more at ease with an expanded political horizon than might have been expected. But he will now have to move beyond words and decidewhat policies he wants and which people he will have around him. This will involve demands on some Tories, and especially William Hague, the obvious choice for shadow Chancellor. It will also mean disappointment to other MPs. If Mr Howard allows himself to be deflected by sentiment or caution, he will pay the price in a hobbled leadership.
Michael Howard has never lacked intellectual self-confidence, and is now at the apogee of his political self-confidence. For the next few days, he can enjoy the pleasures of leadership. Over the next few months, he will discover it is a lonely vocation. The rest of us will discover whether he can rise to the challenge.Reuse content