Steve Richards: The Tory party itself is on trial at Blackpool as much as the leadership candidates

The Tory Party must demonstrate whether it prefers power or the purity of eternal opposition
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The activists attending the annual Conservative conferences must be masochists of an unusually extreme variety. After the election defeat in 1997, William Hague warned them that they were seen as out of touch and sleazy. Following the 2001 election, the conference was told that the Conservatives were perceived as the nasty party.

That was a relatively mild rebuke compared with some of yesterday's declarations from the platform. If they were nasty in 2001, they are regarded as odious in their backward-looking parochialism now. Nothing changes. For nine years at each successive annual conference the Conservatives agonise over their persistent unpopularity.

There is, though, a difference with previous crises and the related leadership contests that accompanied them. Some of the current candidates are a little clearer about how their party needs to change.

David Cameron states that under his leadership he would support the Government when it implemented Conservative- style policies. Mr Cameron would have offered broad support for the introduction of top-up fees, city academies and some of the market-based reforms to the public services.

Here are small signs of a subtler approach. In the past, when ministers have introduced policies vaguely located on the centre-right, Conservatives have affected outrage and leapt further to the right. Mr Cameron's more supportive approach would unnerve Labour MPs and make the Conservatives more coherent as a political force.

The election of Ken Clarke would symbolise an even more profound change. Mr Clarke has been rejected in recent leadership contests largely because of his support for the European Union and his party's desire for a leader rooted unambiguously on the right. His election as leader would show that the Conservatives were no longer obsessed with Europe and had recovered a pragmatic hunger for power. These would be real and potent changes rather than vacuous waffle about the importance of being modern. If the party made such a leap, they would no longer have to bash themselves about the need to change. At last, they would have changed.

The Conservatives are in a more fortunate position than they realise. For all their masochistic protestations, they do not have to reform as much as they fear. Many of their principles and beliefs in key policy areas have gone unchallenged since 1997. Last week, at Labour's annual gathering, they were vindicated once more as the Government unfolded an agenda for the coming months that would have got a standing ovation at any Conservative conference. The priorities included new anti-crime measures, an expansion of the private sector in public services, retaining Britain's unswerving alliance with the US and the need for the EU to reform. As a bonus, there were disdainful references by Blair to France and Germany.

Senior Conservatives should take a bow. Instead they despair, moaning that their task is much harder than the one Labour faced in opposition during the 1980s and 1990s. If they are envious, they should have a chat with Neil Kinnock. He is still getting over the whole traumatic experience. In the 1980s and 1990s, Labour had no choice but to change its firmly held views. It is forgotten now quite how firmly held those views were. A new Conservative leader faces a much easier challenge than the one faced by Labour's leaders after 1979.

In a series of relatively modest ways, the Conservatives have to change if they are to win again. That should be a statement of the obvious. They have lost the last three elections on a programme rooted well to the right of Labour's cautious middle-of- the-road policies. By now, the message should be clear: screaming about immigration, Europe and lower taxes are not a formula for victory. Yet most of the candidates in the current leadership contest cling to these policies.

Sadly, it is not the case that the Conservatives' leadership contest proves that the current Government has changed the political landscape. The candidates steal political language from New Labour. But this is a contest in which most of them look rightwards out of conviction or short-term expediency.

David Davis states openly that while he has moderate one-nation objectives he would deliver them with right-wing policies. Another two or three potential candidates are battling further to the right of Mr Davis. Even the more enlightened candidates look rightwards. Mr Cameron has expressed some interest in a flat tax. Mr Clarke is restrained on the subject although he knows it would be economically and politically disastrous. He is also unable to say anything positive about Europe without being treated like a criminal.

At least within these constraints, Mr Clarke and Mr Cameron have not fallen into the trap of promising tax cuts four years before the next election. They reject the party's current extreme policies on immigration and the spending of public money on private operations. In different ways, they would symbolise a new start. But is their party willing to accept a relatively small leap to the centre ground and elect one of them?

In Blackpool, there are MPs and influential activists conspiring to ensure that Mr Clarke fails to make the final ballot of party members. Some of them would prefer a shoot-out between Mr Davis and Liam Fox, two figures openly on the right. If that were to happen, the symbolism for the Conservatives would be fatal.

There is a close and illuminating relationship between leaders and their parties. A leader cannot be imposed when he or she is at odds with the mood of the party. Some Labour MPs tell me still that Denis Healey should have been elected as their leader in 1980. But regrets about what should happen are virtually meaningless. The deeply divided and febrile Labour Party could not have coped with such a leader in 1980, which is why it elected Michael Foot.

Tony Blair was only able to win in 1994 because the party had changed sufficiently to want such an outcome. Mr Blair would not have been elected as leader at any point in the 1980s or early 1990s even if polls suggested that he would win a general election. The Labour Party was not ready for him.

Are the Conservatives ready for change instead of talking about it? Four or five candidates are supposedly taking part in a beauty conference this week. The contest is much more significant than that. The Conservative Party is on trial and is about to demonstrate whether it prefers power or the purity of eternal opposition.