For the third time, the party has rejected its most obviously eligible candidate. This is a personal rebuff for Kenneth Clarke and a political rebuff for what he stood for. The former chancellor of the exchequer, the man who more than anyone was responsible for the strong economy bequeathed to New Labour, has good reason for disappointment.
He fought a strong campaign, especially in the early stages. He gave the best and easily the most substantial speech at the party conference. He was someone who could have taken on Tony Blair at the dispatch box without need for further training. By yesterday, though, it was clear that two things were against him.
The first was his record on Europe. His much-publicised reversal was too little and too late to convince doubting MPs, while alienating those who might have supported him as a man of principle. It is a pity that the party's most prominent pro-European was not prepared to defend his position to the last. It is high time that Euroscepticism ceased to be seen as the hallmark of a sound Conservative.
Mr Clarke's other liability was age. Had David Cameron not performed so strongly at the party conference and had he not remained in the media spotlight for quite other reasons, Mr Clarke might have come across as the candidate of responsible maturity. The more confidently Mr Cameron handled his predicament, however, the less Mr Clarke looked like the party's next leader. We hope nonetheless to see him back on the front bench. He has much still to contribute to the party.
Mr Cameron's close second to David Davis confirmed him as the centrist candidate for the party's future. It looks unlikely, but not impossible, that Liam Fox will survive into the run-off. The constituency party's enthusiasm for youth over age at the conference, and for Mr Cameron's brand of youth in particular, suggests he will be the next leader. Which is where his problems could begin.
The drugs diversion, while a test of Mr Cameron's mettle, also freed him from a closer examination of his policies. He has time to add substance to what could, at best, become compassionate conservatism for real. But he cannot afford to leave it too long. He may prevail in the constituencies, but he will inherit a parliamentary party with a substantial rump of right-wingers. They could form an internal opposition that would be every bit as troublesome as Mr Blair and his Government. To be effective, he will need to show firmness and political subtlety beyond his years.