Whatever you think of Iain Duncan Smith, it has been hard not to be awestruck by his determination, against all the apparent odds, not to go gently into the political good night wished on him by large sections of his party. Yesterday he began seeing groups of selected MPs to confront them with his argument that a fight for the leadership would be bloody and do untold damage to Tory fortunes. At the weekend, he was adamant that if the magic total is reached of 25 MPs needed to trigger a confidence vote, he would not meekly bow out but would let the vote take place: do or die.
If dissident Tory MPs thought that the media onslaught against Duncan Smith which they have been assiduously feeding from behind - with a few honourable exceptions - the protective cloak of anonymity would be enough to see him off, they have been sadly wrong. Call it crazy or courageous, but Duncan Smith's ferocious stand contrasts sharply with weeks of timorous behaviour by his nameless tormentors.
Whatever the outcome, it remains astounding, given what so many are prepared to say in private, that 25 had not written the fateful letters by the end of last week. Indeed if the names were not to be in the bag by tomorrow, as some of the plotters now promise they will be, then Duncan Smith would be surely be entitled to say the dissidents have had their chance and should now shut up. Were it not, that is, for truly lunatic rules which mean that there is no time limit on collecting the names - and that therefore it now seems all but inevitable that enough of them will trickle in sooner or later.
To admire Duncan Smith's determination, of course, is not to reject the arguments in favour of his replacement. It's hard to dispute the conclusion of the party's former director of strategy, Dominic Cummings, that anyone would now be better than IDS. The widespread assumption in Westminster, moreover, is that the likeliest candidate to take over - or at least the likeliest candidate to win in the ballot of MPs which will be the first stage of any leadership contest - is Michael Howard.
Howard represents a flight to competence for the Tory party. The idea is not so much that Howard, who has image problems among the floating electorate, would suddenly transform the party from losers into winners; rather that he is a heavyweight who would get the party through the next election with a plausible performance in which his genuine talents as a rounded, experienced and notably fearless politician would ensure an absence of self-inflicted crises - in contrast to the present regime - between now and polling day.
This would certainly be an improvement. The first problem, it is tedious to reiterate, is that his leadership cannot be guaranteed, and that David Davis, for one, could well beat him in a ballot of the party membership if he did well enough with the MPs to be in the run-off.
Davis has a difficult decision to make. If he was amenable to the no doubt seductive offers which would be made to throw in his lot with Howard, he would no doubt ensure himself a high profile in a major front-bench job, which might provide him with the base for a further candidacy in the next parliament. He would not have to take the risk of coming third or fourth, and so failing to make the membership ballot at all. He would have shown statesmanship, as Gordon Brown did in 1994, by standing down in the wider interests of his party.
Against that he would also be forfeiting what could still be for him, at 54, the best chance of leading the party - particularly if Howard did well enough in the next general election to stay on. What's more, one reading of the rules is that he could even get to the membership ballot from third place if, and only if, Howard managed to persuade the runner-up to stand down and join his team but David himself decided not to do the same.
All this is no doubt very interesting, and was absorbing many Tory MPs yesterday. As was speculation over whether Liam Fox, Oliver Letwin, the modernising Tim Yeo or the still ambitious Michael Ancram will deny Mr Howard the leadership by the acclaim which many in the parliamentary party would like to see. But it misses something important for British politics as well as for the future of the Conservative Party.
In the last leadership election, which was admittedly a fairly shambolic affair, the party was nevertheless given a real choice of substance -a choice between world views as well as between people, which would be woefully lacking in almost any of the scenarios MPs were talking about yesterday. This was because two other heavyweights, Ken Clarke, representing a broadly pro-European, one-nation Toryism and Michael Portillo, representing a new form of progressive social liberalism, each reflected changing currents in the party which recognised that if it was to succeed again it had to abandon some of the baggage which had helped it to lose power in 1997.
This would matter much less if these two men having been defeated, the validity of their arguments had somehow been defeated with them. Yet the events of the past six years suggest strongly that they were correct. Does anyone now deny, however inimical Clarke's views may have been to the eurosceptic right and however unpopular Portillo turned out to be in dominant sections of the party, that the Conservatives would now have a greater electoral appeal under either - or better still both - of them?
Of course both men could yet prove important in the coming weeks. Portillo still has influence. Clarke can never be ruled out as a candidate, whatever the dangers of entering a contest which many MPs expect he would lose yet again among an ageing, right-wing and diminished party membership. And if Portillo were to do as it was arguably in his interests to in 2001, and back Clarke, it could add impetus to a third attempt by the former Chancellor, who would be the obvious candidate to deny Davis his place in the run-off among party members.
Maybe Michael Howard will still win the leadership. Maybe he will start to see the Tories significantly recovering, as goodness knows the breakdown in trust suffered by the Government, and the continuing crisis in Iraq, give them every reason to do. But both are quite big maybes. And if such a recovery doesn't happen, the need for some form of reshaping of British politics seems every bit as pressing as it was when Labour was struggling in the 1980s.
So younger MPs outside the still dominant right wing would have some thinking to do about whether they have a serious future in the party after the right's third successive leadership victory. For all his undoubted abilities, Michael Howard's time was surely in 1997 when he sensibly offered a deal to William Hague which Hague, very unsensibly, reneged on. Howard may well be the party's best realistic hope. But it is hard to escape the conclusion he will be taking the party back to the future.Reuse content