What happens today in Committee Room 14 of the House of Commons will have a profound effect on the future of British politics. As Tory MPs file in to cast their votes in the first ballot on who should become the new leader of their party, they will have a lot to reflect on.
Partly, of course, they will still be digesting last night's hustings, at which each of the five candidates made his final pitch to this most sophisticated and devious of constituencies. But there are implications that go a lot further than who won last night's beauty contest. Above all they will be demonstrating, first how far they have learnt first from two successive and quite shattering defeats, and secondly from how long it took their opponents to recover from similar – though by no means as wholesale – defeats in 1979 and 1983.
Being in long-term opposition has its compensations. You get to be on television quite a lot if you are any good. You don't have to work as hard. There is plenty of internal struggle to satisfy the politician's natural appetite for intrigue and advancement. All these factors helped to ensure that a significant minority of the Parliamentary Labour Party simply lost its hunger for power in the 1980s.
These bad habits of opposition don't come naturally to Tories. But they can creep up on a party. The first requirement, then, for Conservative MPs today is to demonstrate that they don't want to acquire them. And that means putting on the final shortlist – which will be decided by a week today at the latest – the two candidates who can truly begin to satisfy the Conservatives' historic ambitions for office.
Most of the candidates have merit. The one candidate who may have been mistaken in running – and is the likeliest to be eliminated today – is Michael Ancram, the immediate past party chairman. This isn't true of David Davis, the one candidate who has strengthened his position merely by standing. Besides having a commendable – and in his natural base on the rightish wing of the party unusual – interest in civil liberties, he is personable and intelligent.
Nor should Iain Duncan Smith be written off, not least because he could well win yet. There is something straightforward about him. Where members of the previous regime made it their mission to prevent a referendum on EMU, he has had the courage to argue that dyed-in-the-wool opponents should now be prepared to take their cause to the country.
The problem with Mr Duncan Smith, however, goes to the heart of the choice MPs have to make today. It isn't just that he lacks the public recognition or experience of his two main rivals, or that he bears the dubious burden of Baronness Thatcher's obsolete support or even that there is a real prospect that his victory would result in the Conservatives' leading pro-Europeans simply walking away from the party. It's more that he most closely represents the section of the party that has wilfully limited the appeal of Conservatism to the wider electorate.
Mr Duncan Smith is more right-wing than William Hague, when what the party desperately needs is someone less so. And if he weren't, the right-wingers who want him would imprison him as they imprisoned Mr Hague.
Michael Portillo, to his credit, understands this. As one of the two candidates with actual star quality and cabinet experience, Mr Portillo insists that the party must change. This is one of the reasons he seems certain to top the poll today. His personal journey, much discussed not least by him, has ended at a place where he can see the party needs to be inclusive and tolerant in a way that it has signally failed to be in the past four years. There may even be quarters where he will start to make Conservatism fashionable again.
Unfortunately that isn't enough on its own. To demonstrate its seriousness, Conservative MPs will need to ensure that Ken Clarke joins Mr Portillo in the final shortlist, preferably by giving him second place today. It's very far from from certain that they will do this. But a party prepared to ignore the claims of a man whom the polls show to be easily the favourite Tory with the British electorate simply can't be called serious. It is saying, in a distant echo of Bertolt Brecht's famous formulation, that it was the voters and not the party who got it wrong last time.
The excuses for this self-destructive lunacy are already being burnished. The first is that as a supporter of euro entry in the right circumstances, Mr Clarke can't lead a Eurosceptic parliamentary party. But that reflects the preoccupations of Westminster, not the voters – or many party members – for whom Europe is a much less salient topic. To deploy it is merely to underline the extent to which the parliamentary party will have become a single- issue sect. If, as is wholly possible, there is no euro-referendum (for which anyway Mr Clarke envisages a liberal licence to differ), the problem doesn't arise. If it does happen, then the issue starts to end its career as the one that has hobbled the party since well before the 1997 election.
The second European excuse is that Mr Clarke inflamed MPs by treating them as grown-ups and saying frankly that he would abandon the wholesale policy of treaty renegotiation envisaged by Mr Hague. Yet that policy (as I suspect Mr Portillo recognises) had no allies in Europe and would have led to humiliation or withdrawal from the EU.
And the third – and most ludicrous – excuse is that advocacy of Mr Clarke is a piece of fiendish spin from Labour. I suspect Labour would be less comfortable with either Mr Portillo or Mr Clarke than they were with Mr Hague. But that's hardly the point. Because he is 61, it's common to say that Mr Clarke is an old-fashioned politician, believes in a more robust parliament and heartily dislikes the trickery and spin of contemporary politics. It may be, however, that there is something – from Labour's point of view – dangerously modern about a politician who eschews jargon and soundbites for straight argument. And in any case, it isn't beyond Labour's high command to grasp what floating voters in the country clearly do, that on the central issue of both preserving and reforming public services, Mr Clarke has a track record and trust that far outstrips that of every other rival.
Here a vicarious declaration of interest needs to be made, since Mr Clarke is a non-executive director of this newspaper. (He wasn't, however, when I argued repeatedly in 1997 that he, rather than Mr Hague, would be easily the best leader.) But that doesn't alter the basic fact: a recovering Tory party needs both the metropolitan, and (now) socially liberal Michael Portillo, and the solid Middle-England appeal and consistency of Ken Clarke.
Mr Portillo is here to stay – having been promised a senior post in a Clarke shadow cabinet. Mr Clarke, having served in four offices of state, and with no taste for a mere shadow cabinet post, may not be. The way to get both is to vote in the older man as leader. If Tory MPs do not start to grasp this today, they will pay the price as surely as their Labour counterparts paid it in the 1980s.