The best way forward for the Tories is a Howard-Letwin ticket

Howard's forensic ability combined with Letwin's appeal could yet prove a formidable platform for a Tory recovery
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Iain Duncan Smith is a Roundhead, not a Cavalier, yet in one respect he does resemble Charles II. He is being an unconscionable time a-dying. This is not solely his fault. No one seems prepared to administer the coup de grâce. By the weekend, the Tory leader was like a bloodied boxer who had been battered well beyond the risk of brain damage. If this had been a boxing bout and had not been stopped several rounds ago, the sport would be banned.

In the Conservative leadership ring, however, no one sensible figure is in charge. There are 166 referees, many of them dripping wet. The vast majority of Tory MPs now accept that a change of leadership is inevitable. But most of them are still hoping that 25 of the others will have the courage to write the letters.

This is not only cowardly. It is also damaging. Though it might seem rather late to warn the Tory party about the dangers of looking ridiculous, as all wise Tories now recognise, things can always get worse.

Most of us have had the pleasure of a country walk briefly impaired by an encounter with a rabbit afflicted by myxomatosis. The inevitable routine then takes place: distract any small children, especially the very little ones who think that they have found a furry, floppy pet, and then do the necessary, with boot or stick or stone. It is much easier to write a mere letter, and that makes the failure to do so more culpable. As the Tory party cannot afford a further postponement of recovery, it must not continue to be led by a myxie rabbit.

Recovery. Many Tories are now howling forth the same anguished cry: how did we get into this mess, and what is to be done? The party's problems predate Margaret Thatcher's fall, or it would never have dispensed with its most successful peacetime leader. But the dramatic suddenness of that event - eight days from first ballot to resignation - invested it with a psycho-dramatic intensity which has cast a long shadow down the years.

At the time, I misjudged the matter. I had supported Mrs Thatcher until she failed to win in the first ballot, but there is little place for sentiment in politics. After that failure it seemed to me that she was finished. She was also becoming politically exhausted; it probably was time for her to go. Though it was almost tragic that it had to happen in such a way, with her peerless services to party and country so brushed aside, I could not but admire the Tory party's ruthless adaptability.

Matthew Parris was wiser. He understood the psychic cost. He realised that this was not just another leadership coup, but an act of matricide. The Tory party might have a dragon's leathery hide and a dragon's black heart, but even it could not avoid the misery of the enduring guilt that would stain out from its hideous crime.

Orestes killed his mother for betraying his father. He was then pursued by the Furies for an entire play, part of the Oresteia, before receiving absolution from Athena, at Athens in the Areopagus. In a secular age, with no goddess to grant forgiveness, when will the Tory-estia end?

All that might sound absurdly fanciful. Given the banal nature of most political activity, its practitioners, whatever their misdeeds, should surely be unworthy of such exalted retribution. But there is wisdom in mythical archetypes. Since November 1990, half the Tory parliamentary party has been blaming the other half for sacking Lady Thatcher. In the constituencies among the simpler folk, there is a constant refrain which only grows more plangent with the passing of time: "When shall we see her like again?'' Anyone writing the recent history of the Tory party could find an easy chapter title: "1990-?: Fleeing from the Furies''.

Yet it may be that the era of the Furies is now over and that the party can switch to a more benevolent myth: Parsifal. IDS himself is well qualified for the role of holy simpleton. Untainted by disloyalty to Mrs Thatcher or by support for Maastricht, he has perhaps succeeded in reconciling its party to its primal mother. As his leadership has failed to rise above simpleton level, he may also have persuaded it that a more sophisticated approach is necessary. It is time for the greater knights to thank him for recovering the Holy Grail, before sending him back to shoot swans (or catch fish) so that they can get on with organising the rest of the party's life, under a new leader.

That leader has now emerged. Michael Howard has fought the good fight for IDS, and will do so until the end. I am certain that if Mr Howard could think of some magic potion which would instantly restore IDS's fortunes, he would rush it in rescue to the leader's deathbed. As altering the plot in IDS's favour at this late stage might defy the combined ingenuity of Homer, Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Wagner, Mr Howard would be unlikely to succeed. But no one will ever be able to charge him with disloyalty.

Equally, the rest of the party has now been educated by black despair. A government which ought to be in terminal electoral trouble could well be heading for re-election because of the official Opposition's weakness. There may still be time to avoid that fate, but if so, only just. Any Tory recovery would require the co-operation of the entire party. Mr Howard, as an IDS loyalist, would be in a strong moral position to demand such a response. As he would be a new leader in his early 60s, the ambitious young cardinals on the Tory front bench might well decide to give wholehearted support to the new pope, on the assumption that he would prove a transitional figure and that their efforts would be rewarded in the campaign to succeed him. They could be proved wrong about the transitional nature of a Howard leadership, but that is how some of them may calculate.

Mr Howard will have one further advantage. He will almost certainly secure the support of Oliver Letwin. Had he been willing to stand, Mr Letwin would have won the support of a lot of clever young Tories who believe that the party now needs a new voice. This would probably not have been enough to win him the leadership, but it does put him in a strong position to lend endorsement to another candidate. As he seems determined not to run, that will prove his most important role.

In this column a couple of weeks ago, I floated the possibility of a double-Disraeli option, in the form of a leadership contest between Messrs Howard and Letwin. That will not take place, but we might yet end up with a double-Disraeli leadership. Mr Howard's forensic ability combined with Mr Letwin's fresh appeal could yet prove a formidable platform for a Conservative recovery.

For some years now, Tories have been reassuring one another that the darkest hour proceeds the dawn. Yet the darkness has persisted, and intensified. It would be foolish to assume that there could be any swift return to sunlight, but a Howard/ Letwin ticket offers the most hopeful way forward. First, however, someone must deal with the poor myxie rabbit.