Tonight on BBC2, Newsnight will broadcast the only televised debate between the candidates for the Conservative leadership contest. Newsnight is sounding quite excited about its scoop, trailing the big event in a tone that suggests it has just secured the rights to screen premiership football for the next three seasons: "Clarke versus Duncan Smith – you can see it only on Newsnight."
In some ways Newsnight has a point. The duel will make for lively political theatre in the dying days of August. Not since Labour's deputy leadership contest in 1981 has the traditional holiday month been so enlivened by the whiff of political gunfire. Twenty years ago, we had the "Healey versus Benn" roadshow to entertain us, with the added bonus that the two participants were more active. "Healey versus Benn" was everywhere – on Panorama, Newsnight, Today, probably at a cinema near you. It was a great, mesmerising, vote-losing roadshow. As Labour's support in the polls plummeted further, it became more mesmerising.
Now we must make do with Newsnight. We must make do, also, with knowing what will happen when the cameras roll. Televised clashes, like the radio and television interview, are made for Ken Clarke. Part of the reason he remains addicted to politics is his love of the battle, the cut and thrust of political debate.
When Clarke was Chancellor he could not resist an interview – the trickier, the better. A former senior official in the Treasury told me recently of a typical exchange between Clarke and his Press Office. A memo from the head of the Press Office would state: "Chancellor, Radio Nottingham would like to interview you at midnight on your disagreement with most of the cabinet on Europe. We strongly advise you do not do this interview. There will be few listeners at that time of night. You will only gain wider coverage by prompting more stories about 'Cabinet splits'."
A memo would come back from Clarke's office, stating: "The Chancellor will agree to the interview."
Not surprising, then, that Clarke has agreed to Newsnight. If it was up to him he would, like "Benn and Healey", be at a cinema near you every night of the campaign. Tonight he will be self-confident, funny and pugnacious. If he became leader he would continue to be self-confident, funny and pugnacious.
Judging by recent performances, Iain Duncan Smith will be less self-assured. In interviews he sounds hesitant and nervy. All of this is unfamiliar terrain. Even as a Maastricht rebel, he kept a low profile in the media – unlike two of his fellow insurrectionists whom I bumped into leaving a studio during those heady days in 1993. They were heading for another broadcasting outlet, declaring almost in unison: "We do anything, radio, television, Bar Mitzvahs." Wisely, Duncan Smith kept himself off the Bar Mitzvah list.
Even so, the hesitant media performer will probably go on to win the leadership contest. More to the point, the hesitant performer is the obvious choice for his party. The media portrays British politics as a presidential battle with titanic figures battling it out between themselves – Blair versus Brown, Clarke versus Duncan Smith, Thatcher versus Lawson. It is deeply misleading. British politics is still an emphatically party-based system. Leaders are linked to their parties. They cannot move very far away from them without destroying themselves or their party.
Sometimes leaders are lucky. Their parties and the wider political situation can offer them a fair amount of space in which to move. The skill of a leader is to recognise how far it is possible to exploit such space. Blair was in a fortunate position when he became leader in 1994. He inherited a party ready to accept almost any reform in order to win an election. Blair's skill was to recognise how far he could go, but Labour had to be in a malleable state in the first place. Similarly, when Thatcher was leader she had a fair amount of freedom because of the schism on the left.
Thatcher's intervention yesterday in the leadership contest is the latest reminder that Clarke's party is not giving him much space to move now. The Conservatives are no more malleable than after their first landslide defeat in 1997. Indeed, the party is virtually the same as it was four years ago and, with an eerie precision, this leadership contest is following the same pattern. Polls suggest that Clarke is the more popular candidate with the wider electorate; he attracts the same senior Eurosceptic supporters (Widdecombe and Lansley backed Clarke in 1997); Thatcher intervenes to back his opponent; taking her lead, some party members convince themselves that the right-wing candidate has a hidden charisma.
Several party members have declared on the airwaves in recent days: "People dismissed Maggie when she first became leader. It is the same with Ian. He will be like Maggie." They said the same with Hague. "Maggie was unpopular in the polls when she first became leader, and look what happened. William will be like Maggie."
William is about to depart, having led his party to a massive defeat. But it should not be forgotten that it is William's party deciding on a successor. There has been a lot of speculation in the media about precisely who forms the Conservative membership in its obscure entirety. Plainly, whoever they are, they stayed or joined under Hague. Apart from his brief 'baseball cap' era, he made no attempt to challenge the prejudices of the members. Instead he fed them his Commonsense Revolution.
On the BBC yesterday, one member suggested that a leader who could put the same ideas across better would win the next election. He thought Duncan Smith was just the man. Yet Hague was a brilliant communicator, concise and witty. These deluded members do not get it. The ideas and policies were wrong, not the personality of the leader mouthing them.
As I suggested when Clarke declared his candidacy, the intransigence of his party would lead him into some unpleasant contortions. Already he is starting to manoeuvre awkwardly.
Broadly, he is a supporter of the Nice Treaty, but he says he will abstain in the Commons vote if he becomes leader. This is a perverse position – the prospective leader of the opposition staying away from a vote on an important treaty. Even the prospect of being leader is making Clarke's views on Europe seem confused, less potent than when he was the uncrowned king in exile. Goodness knows what would happen if he actually became leader. Europe is not just about the single currency. One way or another the issue crops up in the Commons most weeks. Clarke would be forced to absent himself from Westminster most of the year.
Parties get the leaders they deserve. The current Conservative Party and Iain Duncan Smith fit each other like a glove. After a second colossal defeat, the victory of another largely unknown Thatcherite would be a bizarre outcome to a leadership contest. But bizarrely enough, it is the only one that makes any sense at all.