Steve Richards: The key question for Tories: who is fit to do the second toughest job in politics?

If a leader without all the right qualifications is elected, the party will crash once more
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What makes a good leader? This is a question that is rarely asked by Conservatives, even when they are holding a leadership contest. In the recent past, candidates have been selected on the assumption that they will acquire the qualities of leadership once they have got the job.

Yet, even at the best of times, being Leader of the Opposition is one of the most demanding jobs in British politics - much more challenging than most cabinet posts. A successful leader is obliged to guide a party with a strong sense of purpose, command the respectful attention of the media and take on a government both in the House of Commons and outside. This is tough and requires rare qualities. If the job to lead the Conservatives were advertised in a newspaper, an employer would spell it out more emphatically. The successful applicant must have considerable political experience, charisma, ruthlessness and a clear sense of political direction. He or she must be a team builder, a good performer on the media and in dealing with the media behind the scenes (an altogether different skill).

These are the pre-conditions to success for a Conservative leader. The BBC used to state in its adverts that applicants for reporting posts in local radio "Must have a driving licence". As I discovered when I managed to get a job as a BBC reporter without a driving licence, the qualification really was an essential pre-condition, almost an end in itself. As far as I could tell, the key to being a successful local reporter was the ability to drive. Similarly, a new Conservative leader must have all the qualifications I have described, not one or two. If a leader is elected without them, the Conservatives will crash once more.

As a leader, William Hague failed largely because he was too young and inexperienced. Briefly, he had been Secretary of State for Wales, but this does not prepare someone in their early thirties for leadership. As a leader, he was overwhelmed. One minute, he was a caring, baseball cap-wearing modern leader, the next he was a reactionary with a crew cut. Oddly, Mr Hague has acquired the necessary charisma and enigma for leadership now he has stood down. While he was leader, he made little impact on the public and was widely portrayed, unfairly, as looking odd. Now he is hugely popular. On radio phone-ins, the callers compete with each other to say he should lead the party. Mr Hague points out they were not saying that when he was the leader. It goes without saying that the problems afflicting the young Mr Hague applied also to the older, but even more inexperienced, Iain Duncan Smith.

In marked contrast, the two most successful leaders of the modern political era met all the criteria outlined in my imaginary job advert for party leader. Some commentators have argued that Margaret Thatcher only acquired charisma once she was an experienced leader. This is not the case. She was the star turn for the Conservatives in the October 1974 election when she had the relatively unglamorous post of shadow environment secretary. Before that, when she was education secretary, she could hold a crowd better than most. As a 10- year-old, I recall taking her round our school fête. The onlookers were mesmerised. The charismatic Mrs Thatcher beat me at the coconut shy, the source of significant political and psychological problems for me, not her, ever since.

More importantly, the election of Mrs Thatcher as Conservative leader in 1975 and Mr Blair as Labour leader in 1994 sent out clear messages about the future direction of their parties. This is a pivotal point about leadership that is often understated: the character of leaders tells us much about the state of the parties they lead. Leaders do not function in a vacuum. They can only flourish with the backing of their parties.

When Mrs Thatcher was elected in 1975, the Tories were signalling a shift to the right. They could have elected the centrist and consensual Willie Whitelaw. They chose instead the candidate who regarded Sir Keith Joseph as her mentor. Similarly, Mr Blair's accession in 1994 signalled his party had changed. He would not have won a leadership contest in 1992, let alone at any point in the 1980s. His election in 1994 showed that Labour was ready to occupy the centre ground, taken there by a leader who combined an accessible self-deprecating style with utter ruthlessness (remember John Prescott's comment on the day Mr Blair got elected: "He frightens me").

By contrast, the recent Conservative elections have signified nothing. Leaders were elected largely in order to block other candidates. In a positive sense, what did it mean when the party turned to Messrs Major, Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard? Not even the bemused victors knew for sure. There is, though, a common link with all four of them. They started by seeking a broader appeal and ended as populist right-wingers. Major won a general election in 1992 during his early phase when he spoke of a classless society, the need to be at the heart of Europe and the importance of better public services. Mr Hague danced the night away at the Notting Hill Carnival in his early months as leader. Mr Duncan Smith went out of his way not to mention Europe and encouraged shadow cabinet members to visit Sweden. In his opening speech as leader, Mr Howard declared that there were no "no go" areas for a modern Conservative Party. By the end of their unhappy regimes, Mr Major was leading an absurd 'beef war' against Europe, Mr Hague was raging about Britain becoming a foreign land, Mr Duncan Smith was threatening to beat up anyone who came near him, and Mr Howard targeted immigrants and gypsies. The Conservative Party picked up no additional support as the leaders headed for the right.

Mr Blair, who could write a brilliant thesis on the Conservatives and who has said he could lead them to recovery in "around five minutes", is particularly perceptive about the pressures on the various leaders to move rightwards. He told me recently that "they have not been served well by their newspapers". In an angry panic, the Conservative supporting newspapers have urged their leaders to move rightwards. The leaders followed and lost. It needs a strong character to resist such pressures.

I note that Ken Clarke threw his hat in the ring at the weekend while telling a BBC interviewer it was far too early for candidates to throw their hat in the ring. Displaying such unashamed chutzpah, Mr Clarke meets the criteria for the job. Yesterday, I asked two senior Shadow Cabinet members, and inevitably potential leadership contenders, about his prospects. They both replied without hesitation: "Not a hope". In which case, Conservatives must ask who else has the highly demanding qualifications for the second most difficult job in British politics. In itself, this would be progress. During the last few leadership contests they did not even ask the right question.