Steve Richards: There are only two men who should be contesting the leadership of the Tory party

The vast field shrinks quickly when a simple question is posed: Who would make the best leader?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Conservatives are making fools of themselves. They know they are making fools of themselves, but cannot do anything about it. The party that won elections with its eyes closed in the 1980s and that still functions in a relatively benevolent political climate, has acquired a unique capacity for being silly.

The number of MPs seeking the leadership of the Conservative Party is absurd. The tone and substance of the debate is superficial. We must appeal to women. We must appeal to gays. We must not be seen wearing ties. We should be the party that cares about the poor. In their despair they range widely, but without much focus, on solutions beyond their own election as leader.

Yet the answers to their anguish are in front of their eyes. They are blinded by their vain agonies and do not see the obvious. The vast field of candidates shrinks very quickly when a simple question is posed: Who would make the best leader in a contest with Labour's next Prime Minister, Gordon Brown?

They are not electing someone to run a village fete, but to make a success of the second most difficult job in British politics. The Leader of the Opposition must expose the faults of the government and in particular the Prime Minister; put a coherent and attractive alternative case; perform well in the media and the Commons; and work well with the rest of the party. Such a post demands clear thinking, experience, charisma and ruthlessness.

Only two of the current potential candidates pass the leadership test. Tim Yeo has been modest and realistic enough to suggest that he will lead the way in retiring early, showing leadership over his lack of leadership abilities. Others should follow quickly. In my view those leaving the field should include the education spokesman, David Cameron. Cameron is too young and inexperienced. Successful political leaders have been tested and sharpened in the heat of political battles. Cameron's time will come. He is intelligent, charming and capable of engaging beyond the Conservative Party. I have chaired conference meetings with non-Conservative audiences in which Cameron has performed well. None of this is enough to qualify for the second-toughest job in politics. For his own sake he should note what happened to Neil Kinnock and William Hague when they became Leader of the Opposition at relatively tender ages.

Only two of the candidates should resist Yeo's call for a modest retreat. Without saying or doing very much, David Davis has acquired an almost unstoppable momentum. This is a triumph in itself. Successful leaders are political conjurers. How did that happen? That is a question asked of leaders with a knack of changing the landscape without anyone noticing quite how they did it.

In some parts of his party Davis is regarded as a right-wing traditionalist, unaware of the need for modernising (whatever that over-used word means). I predict he will defy caricature in the leadership contest. He plans to make a series of heavyweight speeches to a range of audiences, including some on the centre-left. His themes will be less predictable than his image suggests. Unlike Cameron, he has been through political storms, including the drama of the fall of Iain Duncan Smith, in which Davis cleverly placed his ambitions to one side, leaving the field clear for Howard to lose the last election.

If the Conservatives were serious, the contest later this year would take the form of a titanic battle between two contrasting political characters. The other contender would be Ken Clarke who is the most popular candidate with the broader electorate. For some reason this pivotal fact makes virtually no impact on Conservative MPs and party members, a sign that their hunger for electoral success is still perversely limited. Voters will note and punish their insular indifference.

During previous contests I have argued that Clarke was too far removed from his party to make a credible leader. In 1997 and 2001, the Conservatives were not ready for him, largely because of Europe, but also because they assumed that they could win with a defiantly right-wing candidate. This time around it is different. Europe is less of an explosive issue than it was and the current contest follows a third defeat, making the crisis in the Conservative Party more acute. For the first time since Clarke made a habit of contesting leadership elections there is no fatal gulf between leader and party. His election would send out a signal that the Conservatives had recovered a hunger to win.

Clarke may not be a generator of new ideas, but he thrives on debate and political discussion. He is confident enough to encourage the likes of David Willets to acquire greater prominence. Amid the waffle of recent weeks, Willets made the best speech of any Conservative since their defeat in 1997. This is not saying much because there have been few good speeches. But this should not detract from Willets' contribution in a speech to the Social Market Foundation that was witty, placed the party's future challenges in the context of its past and linked values to policy ideas.

Those in the party who agree with Lord Saatchi's analysis yesterday - that the Conservatives suffered partly because they did not place enough emphasis on sweeping tax cuts - would do well to read Willets' speech. Willets argues convincingly that tax cuts should not be the overwhelming priority, pointing out that even the Thatcher governments put up taxes often.

"Davis versus Clarke" would be a respectable contest for a party that still managed to win the highest number of votes in England at the last election, in spite of fighting what Lord Saatchi describes as a Basil Fawlty type of campaign. For all their sweaty hand-wringing, the Conservatives are knocking at an open door in parts of England.

The task for the Conservatives' new leader is both easier and more difficult than they seem to realise. They seek to flourish in a conservative country that has not been fundamentally changed by a Labour government. They do so with the potential support of powerful right-wing newspapers. This should make them optimistic.

At the same time, leadership in British politics demands a rare combination of qualities. This should be a cause for considerable and anguished reflection. In their silliness they agonise over the terrible hole they are not really in and risk electing a leader who will dig deeper.