Leading article: Michael Howard's disastrous bequest

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The Independent Online

The result of the vote can hardly be a surprise. Michael Howard's effort to transfer the choice of leader to the parliamentary party has failed to gain the two-thirds majority needed. He failed to allow enough time to prepare for such a dramatic change from the rules only a few years old. He did far too little to garner and flatter his way to support from the key players in the party at large. He ignored the simple point that, while a change to election by MPs might suit those in the Tory strongholds whose seats were assured, it did nothing for the prospective candidates fighting to gain a seat, on whom the future success of the party rested.

Mr Howard's view of the succession as a battle between the "modernising" David Cameron and the "Thatcherite" Davis may have been thrown askew by the entry into the race of Ken Clarke, who not only upset all the previous calculations but also overturned the expectation of his own supporters by gathering greater support in the party at large than among the Tory MPs. Now that the rule changes have failed to carry, it is almost impossible to predict whether a contest under the old rules would produce a result in favour of Mr Davis, Mr Clarke, Liam Fox or any of the other candidates.

The one certain conclusion of this debacle is that the Tory conference in Blackpool will be a mess and that its leader, Michael Howard, will usher in not a new future but a messy confusion characteristic of the party's recent past. Instead of the beginnings of a resolution of the leadership issue, the curtain will be raised on the start of a bloody and vicious period of struggle until a ballot is finally organised over Christmas.

If the Labour government can draw comfort from the immediate travails of its foes, however, it should avoid being complacent. The ferocity of the Tories' open debate next week will stand in contrast to the controlled, coded confines of Labour's affair in Brighton. But by next spring the Tories will have a new leader, drawn from a group of contenders that are far from negligible. Labour's subterranean warfare between Blairite and Brownites, on the other hand, is likely to go on for some time yet.