Now, with Michael Howard stepping down and Blair standing down at some point before the next election, the party has its best opportunity to renew itself. True, it flunked the first stage of change when members rejected Mr Howard's attempt to change the voting rules, but the leadership candidates - declared and as yet undeclared - promise to make this a real contest. If a damaging rift between the MPs and the constituencies can be avoided, the Tories could finally be in a position to start the long climb back towards government.
There are several consoling features of this contest. The first is that, with the possible exception of Liam Fox, all the candidates seem to understand the party's need to join the modern world. The second is, again with the possible exception of Dr Fox, their stated intention is to reconquer the centre ground. The statement by David Davis yesterday that he would not swerve to the right to shore up the core Tory vote was especially welcome. New Labour won by winning, and then dominating, the political centre. This is where the electoral battles will be fought and where they must be won.
The third is the spread of opinion, personalities and experiences represented by the candidates who have so far declared their hand. It is possible that this contest may have come too soon - but not by much - for David Cameron, the youngest of the bunch and leader of an unusually bright generation of Tory MPs. He has to prove that he is ready for the job. But he has youth on his side, while his social liberalism and dislike of pointless point-scoring could herald the emergence of a modern Conservatism more in tune with our age.
Mr Davis, the front-runner, is hungry for the job in a way that could augur well for trenchant opposition. He is highly telegenic, while his background gives him a good personal "narrative" of which Labour, especially New Labour, will be wary. And perhaps the party needs a leader from the right to return it to political sanity. But he needs to demonstrate that there is a coherent political vision and strategy to match his ambition.
Kenneth Clarke has age against him, but he is well known, well liked and well respected, an increasingly rare combination in modern politics. He can lay claim to Britain's recent economic success from his time at the Treasury, while his opposition to the Iraq war has been vindicated. But there are concerns about his dedication, the alacrity with which he altered his pro-Europe views on the altar of electability, and his connections with Big Tobacco. Nevertheless, if the aim is to make the Tories instantly a more credible political force, he has much to commend him.
Whoever is elected, this country has long cried out for consistent and well-argued opposition. The Liberal Democrats grabbed hold of the baton, but now seem to be faltering. From inefficient public services to an over-complicated tax system, from foreign policy disasters to the onslaught on civil liberties - it is high time the objections were heard loud and clear. This country, and this government, have been without a real Opposition for too long.Reuse content