The Sketch: Let's hear it for the only real contenders in town

Overcoming my fear and dislike of young people, I have to say that David Cameron would make a fine deputy for Ken Clarke. And according to the symmetries that seem to govern politics these days, he could play Tony Blair to the older man's John Smith (let's not pursue the analogy, it doesn't end well).

Yesterday, the only two serious contenders for Tory leader made their pitches to the hall; both went over pretty well.

Ken's speech hadn't been much practised (he never runs the risk of over-rehearsal). The hall loved it. They yearned towards it. He even made them laugh about the economic cycle. His last line went: "It is essential the leader should be seen as the prime minister in waiting. Boy, have you kept me waiting!" Roar, surge. Sinners and cripples mobbed the stage casting off their crutches. Salvation was at hand!

David Cameron's speech was more professional. He'd memorised it. Those who like that sort of thing liked it a lot. I found myself quite liking it, and that was confusing because Cameron is young, clever, likeable and better-looking than David Willetts. But with only four years in parliament? Almost entirely without experience? Isn't that a measure of how desperate the party's become?

Did Cameron have anything as old-fashioned as a theme we could hang on to? How about: "The only party that wants everybody to be a somebody." How about: "A party where everybody's a doer not a 'done-for.' "

No, the best lines all belonged to someone else. "We're at our best when..." "Middle classes to opt into state education not opt out." "Power, wealth and opportunity for all." "Share the fruits of economic growth." "Shared responsibility."

Everywhere we look in political discourse we find Tony Blair.

The ovations: Cameron's was longer. Ken wandered offstage halfway through his, possibly to have a fag. Ken won that one, then.

But one thing Ken said wasn't true: "People do not trust us. It is not that they do not trust us because we are Conservatives..." Actually, that is precisely why people do not trust them. A poll finding reveals that 60 per cent of people like Tory policies - until they find out they're Tory policies, then the approval rate halves.

Ken and Cameron are the last chance for this party. The alternative is razing the whole thing to the foundations, ploughing the land with salt and starting again. Either's good. Just get on with it.

Taxation, terrorism and Tony

SIR MALCOLM RIFKIND

The Iraq war was the biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez, the former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind said yesterday. He used a Conservative conference fringe meeting to reassert his opposition to the war, accusing Tony Blair and George Bush of creating the conditions for terrorism to flourish.

Sir Malcolm said Saddam Hussein had posed little threat to the outside world and said overthrowing his regime had opened up the country to religious rivalry, factionalism and insurgency. He said: "The Bush experiment of bringing democracy to the Middle East has turned Iraq from a major problem into a huge crisis. It is the single biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez and it is actually a far worse disaster in that at least in the case of Suez pretty few people were killed and it was all over in a few days."

LIAM FOX

He will attempt to set out a vision of a caring Conservative party today, telling delegates "we must not walk by on the other side of the street."

He will use his speech to the conference platform to insist that he would not attempt to "out-Blair Tony Blair" if he is elected as the Conservative party leader.

Dr Fox will attempt to broaden his appeal from the right of the party by emphasising his commitment to social issues such as mental health and domestic violence.

He will tell the conference: "We seem to have had an endless debate about what will make us more electable. But surely politics can't just be about telling people what they want to hear. When I was a doctor, I had to tell people the truth about their condition ­ even if it was hard or awkward. We have to do the same to our country ­ that is our duty."

DAVID DAVIS

Gordon Brown's £5bn raid on pension funds could be reversed by an incoming Conservative government, David Davis said yesterday. A firm spending pledge of that size could come to haunt Mr Davis, but it will have powerful appeal with older voters, who could be persuaded to back the Tories at the next election. Last night, Mr Davis's aides denied it was a spending commitment, but he made it clear that if he became leader he would give it priority. The Tories have carefully avoided giving spending pledges since the general election, but Mr Davis was responding to pleas by pensioner groups who have seen the value of their pension funds fall since a tax on pension funds was imposed. Mr Davis said: 'The difficulty we have is in whether the damage done is repairable. But my prejudice is in favour of reinstating the tax status.'

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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