Matthew Norman: So who can name all the Tory runners?

It will be great fun watching this parade of the unsuitable, the clueless and the plain unknown
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Here's a new dinner party game for very sad people. "Name Those Tory Runners" is a twist on the old memory test involving the Seven Dwarfs, only eight million times as challenging, and the rules are very simple. Everyone chucks a fiver in the middle in the table, and as the port, joint or whatever, is being passed from the left, contestants will be asked to compile a list of possible leadership contenders. Since no one in the country, including the contenders themselves, has a chance of getting them all, the one who comes closest scoops the pot.

Here's a new dinner party game for very sad people. "Name Those Tory Runners" is a twist on the old memory test involving the Seven Dwarfs, only eight million times as challenging, and the rules are very simple. Everyone chucks a fiver in the middle in the table, and as the port, joint or whatever, is being passed from the left, contestants will be asked to compile a list of possible leadership contenders. Since no one in the country, including the contenders themselves, has a chance of getting them all, the one who comes closest scoops the pot.

I tried it the other day with a friend who shares my passion for the recherché spectator sport that is internal Conservative politics. After 45 minutes working in tandem, we managed just 11 names ... an even more pathetic tally than it seemed then, when we naively imagined there were 14 runners. We now learn, from the betting market at Ladbrokes, that there are 23. By Monday, it could be 40, 60 or 100. There seems to be no limit.

If you're on the bus, Tube or train, or having a quiet coffee at home or in the office, why not eschew the delights of Sudoku this once, and have a crack at it?

Right then, how did you do? Obviously you got David Davis, David Cameron and Kenneth Clarke, and probably Liam Fox, Malcolm Rifkind and Boris Johnson, too. After that sextet, it becomes a little tricky. Did the name of David Willetts race to mind? Is a certain Damian Green duly recorded on your notepad? What of that dapper little rogue Alan Duncan, the Imelda Marcos manquée Theresa May, or the current third favourite, Andrew Lansley?

Take a bow if you came up with John Bercow, Bernard Jenkin, Caroline Spelman, David Maclean or (bless his ever hopeful heart) John Redwood. The list runs all the way way down to Nicholas Soames, a mean-looking 100-1 to become a successor to his grandpa.

Only one man is quoted at longer odds than Mr Soames, and this 150-1 shot featured yesterday in the most surreal phrase I can recall reading in a British newspaper since that headline about Freddie Starr's taste for furry mammals. "Supporters of Iain Duncan Smith..." began a report about a backbench plot to collect enough signatures to challenge Michael Howard's leadership long before his scheduled departure in the early winter.

The Centaurs, the Sphinx, the Kraken, the Friends of Robert Maxwell, the Abominable Snowman, the Competent Chairman of Spurs, White Farmers For Robert Mugabe, the Emperor Dalek ... And now, joining these mythical creatures from the past, present and future, we welcome the Supporters of Iain Duncan Smith. And yet, who knows, maybe they do exist. Perhaps in the magical, self-contained kingdom of the Tory party, men and women are swinging loyally behind the leader they so joyously ditched less than two years ago. In this alternative universe, little can be ruled out.

Once, the cliché mechanically wheeled out for any such election was "the most sophisticated electorate in the world" - an unlikely notion even then, given the state of some backbenchers, but less so then than now. At least such elections were the political equivalent of the Derby. Sometimes the field was stronger than in others, and the ante post favourite was invariably collared a couple of furlongs from the line. Even so, it was always a fairly select group.

What we are witnessing this time is the Grand National - and an old-style National at that. More mature readers may remember how, before they made the fences less lethal, the National was a magnet for the suicidal no-hoper. For countless years, the Duke of Albuquerque was a fixture. Every April, this magnificently barking Spanish aristo would turn up at Aintree for another bash. And every April, at 3.21pm on Saturday, (you could set the clocks an hour forward by it) Peter O'Sullevan would gravely intone: "And the Duke of Albuquerque's gawn at the first."

In this long and arduous political steeplechase, there are myriad Dukes and a few solid but talentless stayers, but just one thoroughbred. To those of us watching from the stands, it looks like a foregone conclusion. Just as Caligula once observed that he fantasised about all of Rome having one neck so he could chop it off, so you wish the Tories had one neck, so that you could wring it and scream: "What the hell is wrong with you people? How bloody obvious does it have to be before you pick Ken Clarke?"

Mr Clarke, a director of the company that owns this newspaper, has his faults (another directorship, with British American Tobacco, does him less credit), but his virtues vastly outweigh them. He has pretty impeccable form, most significantly as the Chancellor who laid the foundations for the economic stability so adroitly maintained by the man the next Tory leader will face across the despatch box a year or two from now.

People like and trust him. He is the most popular politician in Britain. Had he, rather than IDS, become leader in 2001, an anti-Iraq war Ken would have steered the Tories to a hung parliament, if not outright victory. Whatever his enemies affect to believe, Europe, the traditional barrier to his election, is a dormant volcano that will not be reactivated for years. Socially liberal, he would attack Labour's autocratic centralism from the left on issues such as identity cards and depriving terrorist suspects of the right to trial. The only Tory feared by both the Liberal Democrats and Labour, he would make the Tories odds-on for the 2009 general election.

In this Neverland of grotesque self-delusion and rampaging self-indulgence, meanwhile, he is headed in the betting by Mr Lansley, whoever he might be; by Dr Fox, a man so exquisitely attuned to modern mores that a while back he delighted Christmas revellers with the riddle: "What do you call four dogs and a blackbird? The Spice Girls"; and, of course, by 4-5 favourite David Davis, a vulpine right-wing enforcer, computer designed for the post of Chief Whip; but with ambitions so beyond his gifts his answerphone message is believed to go: "If you're calling to pledge your support, I'll make you shadow Chancellor. If not, best renew your medical cover now."

Now that the MPs have absolved party members from any electoral responsibility, perhaps there is a remote chance they will succumb to a revived urge to form a government, rather than perpetuate the blood feud over Mrs Thatcher's demise by choosing another neo-Thatcherite no-hoper. But you'd be mad to bet against history repeating itself, yet again, as out and out farce. It will be tremendous fun watching this parade of the unsuitable, the clueless and the plain unknown. But the only ones laughing when the winner limps home, one suspects, will be some very smug hyenas on the Government benches opposite.

Comments