David Aaronovitch: The Tories are overcome by self-indulgent fatalism

'They seem to have decided, in light of Portillo's quest for his true self, that the man is mad, bad and flighty'
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I give up. I've managed successfully to predict every Tory leadership election since 1990, and every Labour one since 1983, both inclusive. I chose Kinnock when Peter Mandelson was predicting (and campaigning for) Hattersley; backed Major when the heavy money was on Hurd; plumped for Blair and saw early on that Hague was positioned to beat Clarke. In each case it was a matter of who was best poised to lead his party from its "principled" isolation towards a necessary compromise with the voters. If William Hague reneged on this golden rule, well, that was his fault.

So I am a very clever man and you are lucky to have bought this newspaper. Until now that is, because I cannot call this one. If Aaronovitch's iron law were to hold good, the Conservative MPs would have intuited by now that it was their historic mission to put the names of Michael Portillo and Ken Clarke before their wrinkled electors. These voters would in turn get on with the business of electing Mr Portillo to lead his party where Mr Clarke could not – back to the middle, except with lots of interesting new ideas.

But they haven't. Instead Mr Portillo has been subjected to the same kind of vilification from party ideologues (mostly in the press) that Tony Benn faced when he stood against Denis Healey for the Labour deputy leadership in 1981. At the same time the wider Tory electorate seems to distrust him and his parliamentary colleagues have twice refused him the momentum of a substantial lead.

How has the logic of the world been thus inverted? Part of the difficulty faced by the oracles during this battle has been the emergence of another love that dare not speak its name. Consider the following unremarked fact: in the first first round of voting (to be distinguished from yesterday's second first round) 45 of Mr Portillo's 49 supporters were known to journalists – only four were anonymous. For David Davis it was 15:6, for Michael Ancram 12:9, for Mr Clarke 22:14. But fully 24 out of Iain Duncan Smith's (hereinafter referred to as IDS) 39 votes were cast by shy boys. His declared supporters included the finest bongo-brains in the party: men like Julian Lewis, Desmond Swayne and Andrew Rosindell (Spike's owner from Romford). But who were the others?

Some will have been the outgoing boss and whip class (the Hague establishment). And several may well have been Portillistas convinced earlier this week that IDS would be the ideal man for their hero to face in the country, rather than the formidable Mr Clarke. Boy, did they make a mistake. My kind of mistake. Because it looks as though IDS could well go to his party and win, and that would shatter my golden rule, as well as dooming the Conservative Party to political marginalisation. Unless, of course, IDS is the man to lead the party back to the centre.

If he is that man, he will disappoint his backers, who are currently so busy trying to destroy Mr Portillo. They are reconstructing the shadow Chancellor as the would-be Ramsay Macdonald of Toryism, the man who would lead them into de facto liquidation. Yesterday's Daily Mail (widely read by the party in the country) had his picture on the front and the banner headline: We Don't Want You As Leader. There were no quotation marks.

Mr Portillo, it turns out, is not a real Tory at all. This view was expressed by that squeaking Mail inquisitor, Stephen Glover. And what was wrong with the MP for Kensington and Chelsea? "It is," wrote Glover, "his maddeningly politically correct tone that is raising hackles." I sense a new definition. "Politically correct: to believe that it is wrong to discriminate against others on the grounds of race, gender or sexual orientation." Oh, and to opine that virtually every single newspaper might be right in asking for the laws on cannabis to be reviewed.

Another right-wing commentator, Simon Heffer writing in the New Statesman this week, also castigated Mr Portillo for choosing to fight on a libertarian agenda. "Believe it or not, not all [Tories] have any quarrel with black people or homosexuals: but they just don't feel that these groups and their causes should be so high on the list of priorities of someone who wishes to be a Conservative prime minister." This, of course, is a variant on the ancient complaint about gay libbers thrusting their sexuality down everyone's throats. Heffer's admonition coincided awkwardly with a week in which for two consecutive days an entire page was given over in the Mail to attacks on anyone wanting the removal of Section 28.

Nevertheless, "one is tempted to wonder," continued that paper's sage, "whether Mr Portillo has literally taken leave of his senses." Is one really? Well, at least he had some senses to play with; Glover on the other hand is the man who predicted a Major victory in 1997 and praised William Hague as a successful leader just before the 2001 debacle. I am "tempted to wonder" instead whether Mr Portillo was not simply trying to build a new platform combining social and economic liberalism, in a situation where the country embraces the first, but believes – for the time being – that the second has run its course?

Bewilderingly these fanatics are not alone. The party at large is now settling for the illusion that theirs are the values shared by middle Britain, and that if only William had been a bit tougher... They seem to have decided, in light of Mr Portillo's quest for his true self, that the man is mad, bad and flighty. Indeed, there is something vaguely artistic, something sensitive about him. He turns out to be Michael Poetillo, an Oscar Wilde in a party of Queensberrys.

Which IDS is not. IDS is a good bloke. Straight as a die. His father was a World War II pilot and his mother was a ballet dancer. Conservatives worry that with Mr Portillo it was the other way around. As a more sophisticated commentator, Peter Oborne, wrote in The Spectator, IDS possesses senses of "honour, integrity, decency, courage, family values, right and wrong". In fact his only downside is that – as a man's man – he is bad on TV. Cue another "time is out of joint" lamentation and a comparison with "Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, who twice rescued the Roman Republic and twice returned to his farm". It is a very bad sign when Conservative journalists begin to invoke classical dictators.

IDS was also one of those who backed John Redwood for the leadership against John Major in 1995, a group that was famously described by a prime ministerial source as "Ward 8 from Broadmoor". He is pro-hanging, doesn't want gays in the armed forces, believes women shouldn't serve on the front-line, and – for my money – showed an opportunistic and rather disgraceful streak in calling for British troops in Sierra Leone to be withdrawn.

That Mr Ancram, a moderate man, should (apparently) prefer IDS to Mr Portillo because of his own personal feelings about the Shadow Chancellor, indicates a mood of self-indulgent fatalism has overtaken a once-ruthless party. A party that has wasted four years on the Hague/Duncan Smith/late Thatcher trajectory already, and could well – despite all logic – waste another four.