Necessary as it was, the ousting of Iain Duncan Smith last night is unlikely to come without a backlash. Having been deprived by a noticeably narrow majority of MPs of the man they resoundingly chose two years ago, rank-and-file party members are now faced with a concerted effort to ensure the unchallenged succession of Michael Howard a deal which would deprive them of any choice at all.
But that is not the only danger. For now that the party has come dramatically to its collective senses by deposing an unelectable leader, it may seem churlish to warn that this is only half the battle. Getting rid of the leader is a necessary but not sufficient condition of the long march back to electoral success.
One of the most insidious by-products of the idea that getting rid of the leader will be enough is the notion that the divisions within the parliamentary party over policy and outlook have somehow been resolved, and that it is now broadly united behind the essentially right-wing set of ideas he stood for. And that this is one of the reasons that Ken Clarke and Michael Portillo, one a one-nation pro-European mainstream Tory and the other a born-again social liberal, are seen as yesterday's men.
Well if that's the case, it reflects such a dramatic transformation over the past two short years that Duncan Smith should have been carried shoulder-high by the executive of the 1922 Committee last night for achieving it.
For the more you look at them, the more startling the figures for the last leadership election become. In each of the three rounds of the contest, the collective votes for Portillo and Clarke outnumbered those of all the other candidates put together. In the first round, when there were five candidates to choose from, the votes for Portillo and Clarke added up to 85, compared with 81 for Michael Ancram, David Davis and Duncan Smith. By the time it came to the last round of course, the gap was even more striking 112 to 54. Not only, in other words, did Duncan Smith become leader thanks to a shrunken and ageing party with less than a third of his fellow MPs supporting him, but the two candidates in favour of a real change of direction from a right-wing leadership which had consciously put state-shrinking, asylum and deep-dyed euroscepticism at the heart of its platform were supported by a large majority of the parliamentary party.
This isn't ancient history. It was two years ago and this was the result of voting by precisely the same electorate that will be voting early next month.
Several important conclusions flow from this. The first is that the present leadership rules are not merely eccentric. They are a disaster. A membership base wholly at odds with the floating electorate, as Labour found to its huge cost in the 1980s, hobbles electoral success. The rules institutionalise that conflict.
The second conclusion is this. The neo-Thatcherite clique which completed its hijacking of Conservatism in 2001 under Duncan Smith did so from a minority position among Tory parliamentarians, by using the party apparatus to offset the opposition of a decisive majority of MPs rather as the hard left of Labour sought, but in the end failed, to do in the 1980s.
They are the reason for another received wisdom about the party, that it is ungovernable by anyone on the opposing wing of Conservatism, the likely non-runner Clarke being a notable example. By contrast, it is argued, Michael Howard would be much more congenial to the hardest-line Eurosceptics in the party. Neither he nor David Davis are members of the clique that threw up Duncan Smith. Indeed both were active members of the very government the now deposed leader attempted to subvert.
But they are on the right of the party; and Howard was one of the first front-rank politicians to let it be known that he would never accept a yes vote in a euro referendum as the final verdict of the British people. So they represent a kind of pragmatic line of least resistance for a party whose members apparently cannot stomach Clarke's views on Europe.
Yet there is a paradox at the heart of all this. The one development that would quell the divisions in the party among its members as well as its MPs and on many issues beside Europe would be electoral success. Not necessarily a victory in 2005 or 2006 but real, solid progress in the polls and next year's local, territorial and London elections which could make the party smell like an alternative government. And it is hard to explain quite what has happened in the past two years to change the view held by the biggest single group of MPs in the final round of parliamentary voting in 2001 that Clarke was the man to achieve just that. What's clear from the 2001 figures is that there are VERY large number of votes looking for a home outside the party's right wing.
I don't mean at all to suggest that, if elected, Howard (who did not stand in 2001) would not be a big improvement on what has come before. This is about more than his undoubted abilities as a first-class parliamentary opponent. His refusal yesterday to blink in the negotiations David Davis hoped might lead to a bankable quid pro quo for not standing, not to mention Howard's squaring of his potential tormentor Anne Widdecombe at a meeting on Tuesday night, suggest a certain steel the Tory party has become rather unused to in its leaders. He may well start to shove the party pragmatically towards the centre, as it must be shoved, especially on domestic policy.
In particular he is well placed, and probably instinctively inclined, to make a credible and for the government rather dangerous case that the Tories would stick to Labour's planned spending totals until 2006, and only then freeze spending and start thinking about tax cuts after that.
In the meantime, he would promise to spend the money in much less wasteful ways than the Government. This has the basis of a persuasive and coherent economic message untrammelled by doctrinaire calls for immediate tax cuts.
The point is rather that Kenneth Clarke could do all this as an ex-Chancellor and rather more besides, not least because he combines even greater cabinet experience with an image so much less associated than Howard's with the party's Thatcherite past.
All the indications from Clarke's close allies last night were that he will not run on the grounds that a third defeat at the hands of the party membership would be just too much. But that was before Howard appeared to he heading for an unchallenged coronation. And there are eight days to go. If neither he nor Portillo feel they can join in the contest, it says something about how much progress the party as a whole has yet to make having consigned to the margins the two men identified by a large majority of its MPs as its saviours a mere two years ago.Reuse content