Michael Brown: The toff factor might still determine who wins the Tory leadership contest

They may dismiss David Davis as a northern oik, but he can attract wide support outside the party
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The Independent Online

For years, there has been pressure on the party to find its equivalent of Labour's "Clause Four moment". Ken, in his own inimitable style, has come up with such a personal moment by dishing the euro. For sheer chutzpah, that will take some beating.

Mr Clarke's assumed entry certainly scuppers Sir Malcolm Rifkind's chances and, apart from Liam Fox, most other minnows, such as Alan Duncan, Tim Yeo and Andrew Lansley are out of the picture. Only the cerebral David Willetts retains a Geoffrey Howe-like credibility. He may even get enough supporters (10 MPs are required to nominate) to enter the race alongside Mr Clarke and the other two front-runners, David Davis and David Cameron. Mr Willetts will not win, but he will have a major influence on whoever becomes the new leader.

It is nearly four months since Michael Howard, in a gross abrogation of his leadership responsibilities, began his long goodbye in preparation for joining the ever increasing ranks of ex-Tory leaders now sitting on the opposition benches. Most Tories had assumed he would spare the Conservative Party its fourth contest in eight years by staying, at least until next year, to "do the washing up". But the last votes had not even been counted on 5 May before Mr Howard said he was going - except that he would linger around until the party had abolished OMOV - one person one vote. This is to help his protégé, David Cameron, try to beat the obvious front-runner, David Davis.

We still have another month to go before the party's ruling national convention of party grandees and constituency chairmen decide whether they will surrender their membership's opportunity of deciding between the two top candidates whose names, under the present system, MPs are obliged to submit to a membership ballot. This meeting takes place just four days before the Tories gather for their conference in Blackpool.

In the old days of Tory hegemony, it was always possible to browbeat constituency chairmen by dangling knighthoods and MBEs before them. But such patronage is no longer available and there must be a nagging fear that the constituency chairmen may not be as compliant as Mr Howard hopes.

It is the 400 or so chairmen who have no Tory MP to represent their members who are the most likely to kick up a fuss. Take my old constituency parties in Brigg, Scunthorpe and Cleethorpes. In the days of power, though I cast the vote in the leadership contests of 1990, when Margaret Thatcher was replaced by Mr Major, and in 1995 when Mr Major was challenged by John Redwood, the local members were able to sound off to me with their views. In the 198 constituencies that have a Tory MP, there is no particular pressure on them to retain the membership ballot. But in my former constituencies, there is now no MP to consult or be consulted. So it would not surprise me if these local chairmen come under pressure from their membership, in the absence of a local Tory MP, to vote at the national convention next month to retain their present power.

If the Tories meet in Blackpool, with such an outcome, the party will face anarchy that will be Mr Howard's enduring legacy. The leadership race, which will only formally start with Mr Howard's resignation the day after the conference is over, will not then end with the final parliamentary ballot - expected on 10 November - but will last until next January when a postal ballot would be completed.

Bearing in mind that this is the most dreary, naval-gazing leadership election the Tories have had in modern times, Mr Clarke's candidacy is to be welcomed. He is at least guaranteed to add gaiety to the race, And although he is losing several of his original hard-core supporters - Tony Baldry to Mr Cameron, and Ian Taylor to Mr Davis - while failing to pick up many of the 50 newly-elected MPs, no Tory leadership contest is complete without his active participation.

The entry of Mr Clarke scuppers any notion of sordid deals and tickets involving himself and the young pretender, David Cameron. For Mr Cameron's long-term sake, this has to be good news. It would be a travesty for Mr Cameron if he became leader after just four years in the Commons. If he had entered Parliament with me in 1979, after four years he would just be beginning life as a junior minister for paper clips. Even William Hague had served in Parliament for eight years and in a cabinet, while Tony Blair had been an MP for 11 years, serving for seven in the shadow cabinet.

Mr Cameron has spent most of his political life working in the shadows for Mr Howard. He was responsible for writing the recent manifesto, with its infamous 10 words that few Tory MPs could ever get in the right order ("cleaner policemen, hospital discipline, more taxation" - as Boris Johnson said) and which rebounded so disastrously during the election campaign.

Many say his leadership of the exclusive Notting Hill set of rich, metropolitan, Tory toffs should not be held against him and that his Old Etonian status is no bar to the leadership. I think it is, and would commend to every Tory a re-reading of the coruscating article written by Iain Macleod in The Spectator in January 1964, following the installation, three months earlier, of the Old Etonian Alec Douglas-Home by his fellow Old Etonians in the Macmillan "magic circle" instead of the obvious choice of RA Butler.

Which brings me to my preferred candidate, David Davis, who has this week stayed out the Clarke/Cameron manoeuvrings. True, I am biased by 35 years of personal friendship and the fact that for a decade we represented adjacent Humberside constituencies. The local docks disputes of the 1980s in Goole and Immingham in our respective constituencies showed me that Mr Davis had an appeal beyond the natural Tory southern heartlands to the blue-collar northern areas where there is now little representation.

Born to a single mother, raised on a council estate, he is dismissed by the toffs as a northern oik. But his record as shadow Home Secretary and chairman of the Public Accounts Committee reminds me - far more than Mr Clarke's - of Macleod's comment on Butler: "He has the priceless quality of being able to do any job better than you think he will, and of attracting to himself wide understanding support from many people outside the Tory party. And without such an appeal, no general election can be won."

In 1963, Lord Hailsham and Lord Home renounced their peerages - today Ken Clarke renounces the euro. Howard, like a latter-day Macmillan, manoeuvres for the toff Cameron, while Davis is cast in the role of Butler. But what if Butler had won?

mrbrown@talktalk.net

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