Mary Dejevsky: The Tories seem to have grown even more pitiful

'Their despair resembles the mood among America's Republicans after their second defeat by Clinton'
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You do not have to be a paid-up member of the Tory party to feel that the choice between Iain Duncan-Smith and Kenneth Clarke for the leadership does not bode well for the party's election prospects. What a hopelessly shop-worn pair they appear, representatives – however they try to spin it – of the two poles of the post-Thatcher party: the Europhobes and the Europhiles, the hard-line free-marketeers and the (slightly) more compassionate types.

When I left Britain six years ago, the country was languishing in the dog days of the Major government. The Tories' coming landslide defeat was already a foregone conclusion, as was the leftward shift in the country's political centre. But the resigned mood of the party then cannot be compared with the air of black depressionapparent now, or the directionless flailing after a coherent set of policies – almost anything, it seems, that could give the party a purpose. Now back in Britain, I find the state of the Tory partyhas grown even more pitiful.

Its self-absorbed despair resembles the mood among America's Republicans after their second defeat by Bill Clinton in 1996. They had a lacklustre candidate in Bob Dole, as well they knew. They had lost the crusading spirit of common purpose that Reagan had brought them, and they had understood, correctly, that in a presidential election the aggressive and dogmatic conservatism of Newt Gingrich, who had led their party to victory in the House elections two years before, risked repelling as many voters as it could win.

So how did it come about that the Republican Party rallied around George W Bush and took back the White House just four years later, and – briefly – the Congress as well? And what, if anything, could be learned by the Tories, some of whom travel regularly to Washington to sip from the fount of "true" conservatism at the likes of the Heritage Foundation?

Lesson Number One the Tories are already learning, but have not yet sufficiently absorbed. You have to be scared enough as a party to abandon old ways and unite around something fresh – and that includes new leaders who might not immediately thrust themselves forward. George W was known to have the seeds of presidential ambition, but it was the perception among his Republican peers – state governors all – that he had the qualities to win that really propelled him into the race and drew the necessary financial backing.

When George W was first approached about running, two factors were crucial. The first, so far less applicable in Britain, thank goodness, was his capacity to raise legendary quantities of dollars through his professional and family connections. The other factor, which does apply, was political positioning. The Bush team made the bold, and some thought foolhardy, decision to compete with Bill Clinton's Vice-President, Al Gore, for the political centre. In so doing, he borrowed all of the tactics adopted by Bill Clinton eight years before when he beat George Bush senior.

US elections, at least since the Second World War, have generally been much closer than in Britain, and the turnout much lower. The rule of thumb is that about one-third of voters will always vote Republican, one-third will vote Democrat, and the rest can be swayed either way. The political centre is where the votes must be won: the trick is in divining where that centre is. Bill Clinton had an uncanny sense for it, and made Democrats into New Democrats. He understood that Democrats were not philosophically opposed either to good management or to the free market, and he adjusted the party's priorities accordingly.

The Tory Party need not be deterred from making a grab for the centre by the fact that Tony Blair has so successfully occupied it. That was precisely the problem the Bush team confronted and solved with its "compassionate conservatism" formula, and there is no reason why a New Tory party under a new leader should not do the same. The Blair government is not invulnerable: what has it actually done with its huge Commons majority beyond half-hearted devolution and making the Bank of England independent? By 2005, Labour could be even more open to attack on its own ground: on the administration of cities, the rationing of medicine, the state of the railways, its shilly-shallying over Europe.

A third lesson from the Bush campaign, though, is that policies need not – indeed should not – be too precisely formulated, lest they alienate too many voters. The Bush team did produce some detailed policy blueprints (mostly in relatively uncontroversial areas, such as education), because their candidate was perceived as deficient in intellect and experience. But, as Mr Bush also demonstrated, the image of the candidate and the tone of his utterances was at least as important as what he actually said. George W came across as a genial fellow who meant no harm, except to foreign enemies. The fact that he was inarticulate proved less of a liability than Al Gore's multiple revamps and inability to "connect".

If the Tories could find someone to lead them who has a respected and resonant name, as well as the character to match, they could be halfway to victory. And if they were to confront an opponent – Gordon Brown, perhaps? – as deficient in the "connecting" department as Al Gore, their prospects could soar.

Britain is still not as celebrity-driven as America, and too much glitz can be a liability here, as Neil Kinnock learned to his cost with his Sheffield rally in 1992. But it is hard to see either the bone-dry Duncan-Smith or the rumpled Clarke commanding sufficient televisual charisma to win over doubters.

There is a limit, however, to how much the Tories can learn from George W: the political landscape here is different and the circumstances of Mr Bush's victory were uncommon. Disillusioned British conservatives, especially rural conservatives, can resort to voting Liberal Democrat in extremis, whereas American conservatives have no real option but to stick with the Republicans. The Gore campaign was hobbled, though perhaps less than some believe, by Bill Clinton's personal conduct in office. Neither Mr Blair nor his legacy are likely to be so tainted; nor would personal conduct necessarily count for as much in this country.

Most pertinent, perhaps, is that the Republicans in 2000 were persuaded to subordinate their ideological differences for the sake of presenting a united front. In return for a vague anti-abortion pitch by Mr Bush, the religious right held its fire so as not to scare away centrist voters. Conservative diehards placed victory before ideology. There is no sign yet, however, that their Tory counterparts are prepared to do likewise. To the Europhobes, the issue of Europe is about nothing less than Britain's survival as a nation. They would see any victory by a Europhile Tory Party as pyrrhic, not a means to an end. The US Republicans have not confronted any similar dilemma. Which is why the fourth lesson for the Tories is vital: they can draw much from the Bush Republicans, but they have to know where to stop.