Leading article: A very public contest

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The Independent Online

This was not how Michael Howard, the outgoing Tory leader, intended it to be. When he announced his resignation in May, Mr Howard anticipated that the party would accept his proposed reform of the leadership election procedures that would put the decision making process back in the hands of MPs, rather than local members. This conference was intended to be little more than a chance for ordinary members to show their appreciation for their wise representatives in Westminster. But the party had other ideas and unceremoniously rejected Mr Howard's rule-change proposal last week.

When David Davis, Kenneth Clarke, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Liam Fox, David Cameron - and anyone else who throws their hat into the ring - make their speeches this week, they will be forced to appeal not just to the men in grey suits of the parliamentary party, but the ordinary rank and file members too. It will be a very public and hard-fought beauty contest. It is a far cry from the coronation that saw Mr Howard emerge as Tory leader last time around.

And at this stage it is also impossible to pick a clear winner - something that makes this week's gathering in Blackpool all the more vibrant. Mr Clarke's entry to the contest has stopped this becoming a two-horse race between David Davis and David Cameron. Two candidates will go forward after a poll of MPs to be voted on by the membership. But which two they will now be is too close to call.

It all makes for quite a contrast with the Labour Party conference in Brighton. The Government's own "leadership contest" was conducted behind closed doors. The question of when Tony Blair will step down was addressed only in the subtlest of codes in speeches. And this is, of course, in a party where few doubt who Mr Blair's ultimate successor will be. Gordon Brown has been regarded as the leader in waiting for almost a decade.

The Tories ought to make the most of this. This is a chance for them to present themselves as an alternative to the stage-managed and authoritarian Labour Party. They can show themselves to be a party that is comfortable with internal debate and which does not feel the need to eject from the hall anyone who does not toe the official line. Let the real battle for the Tory leadership commence.