Leading article: Still sticking their heads in the sand

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The Independent Online

The lessons from the previous three election defeats could not be clearer for the Conservatives. Extreme Euro-scepticism alienates voters. Key sections of the electorate are more concerned about the quality of public services than sweeping tax cuts. More broadly, each successive Conservative leader has fallen into the trap set by Tony Blair. He moves on to their territory hoping to push them further to the right. In the past, leaders have obliged.

There are welcome signs that this time around the leading candidates for the leadership are more subtle. Obviously, Ken Clarke will not stride to a position of extreme Euro-scepticism. There were Blairite echoes in Thursday's speech by David Davis, while David Cameron has even praised some of Mr Blair's better policies. This is much cleverer than moving further right. Little wonder that such support makes Labour MPs uneasy. It symbolises a desire to take the fight to the centre ground - political terrain that should not be regarded with disdain by Conservatives. Mr Blair has, after all, won three elections firmly placed there.

But the fact is that the Conservative Party still has many activists closer to Cornerstone's agenda, fulminating over Europe and angry at the imposition of vital human rights legislation. This is an acute dilemma for candidates seeking more centrist priorities. Their ageing membership and many of their cheerleaders in the right-wing press have not changed greatly and feel threatened by modernity. It is possible that these members will elect Ken Clarke as their new leader, but this would be in spite of his views, not because of them.

The extremism of Cornerstone's agenda suggests that the next leader will have to engage in a series of internal battles over familiar policy areas and win them. There is still a significant section of the Conservative Party that has not learnt the lessons of its recent bleak past.