From pantomime to farce

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It is in its early stages, but the Tory leadership contest is already beginning to resemble a pantomime. The sheer number of Tory MPs who seem to be throwing their hats into the ring is almost farcical. David Davis, Malcolm Rifkind, Kenneth Clarke, David Cameron, Liam Fox, David Willetts, Alan Duncan and Tim Yeo have all strongly hinted they will run.

It is in its early stages, but the Tory leadership contest is already beginning to resemble a pantomime. The sheer number of Tory MPs who seem to be throwing their hats into the ring is almost farcical. David Davis, Malcolm Rifkind, Kenneth Clarke, David Cameron, Liam Fox, David Willetts, Alan Duncan and Tim Yeo have all strongly hinted they will run.

Even names such as Theresa May and William Hague are being conjured with. Perhaps it would be simpler to list only those Conservative MPs who are not considering standing.

There is - of course - a large element of unreality about all this. Under the new Conservative leadership election rules (currently under discussion), each candidate would probably need the nomination of around 20 other MPs. There is no way that such a long list of hopefuls would be in a position to slug it out in the autumn, when the election is scheduled to take place. There are simply not enough MPs in the party. The list must be substantially whittled down by then.

What we are witnessing at the moment, of course, is jockeying for position. Potential candidates are attempting to set out their stall and explain the direction in which they would take the party. None of them wants explicitly to commit themselves to running - that would make them an early target for the rest. But they all hope to pick up enough political momentum in these early stages to carry them through to the finishing line. It is politics, pure and simple.

And indeed, some good has come of it. There is a genuine debate going on within the Tory party about its future direction. David Willetts, David Cameron and Alan Duncan have all made perceptive interventions about the role of Conservatism, specifically in the social sphere. And all the aspiring candidates agree that the party needs to "modernise" - although there is no consensus as to exactly how.

But the Conservative Party must be careful that this beauty contest does not descend into farce. The sooner the list is reduced to serious candidates the better. Some, such as Theresa May and Liam Fox, may have to accept they have insufficient support. Others with more credibility, such as David Davis, David Cameron and Malcolm Rifkind, need to clarify precisely what they stand for.

Michael Howard's early announcement of his departure and decision to reform the election rules may have been sensible, but the sheer length of time the process takes has relieved the pressure on the Government and has consigned the Tories to an extended period of internal struggle. While the Conservatives choose their leader, the position of official opposition - once again - lies tantalisingly vacant.

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