Leading article: This beauty contest has taken an unlikely turn

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It would be all too easy to condemn the "beauty contest" between aspiring leaders that this week's Tory conference ultimately became. It would be easy, too - especially for the Davis camp - to condemn a political culture that places presentation, personality and oratory above the quieter, less obtrusive political qualities of the past. But the media age demands media skills. How else are political leaders to communicate their message on a national, let alone international, stage?

Presentation matters. And this is not Mr Davis's forte - at least it was not his forte yesterday. Condemned, perhaps, by the curse of the front-runner, he performed as a veritable Al Gore: wooden, hesitant, and out of time. Dr Fox delivered a sparkling speech setting out an agenda from the right that was both coherent and fresh. His was the speech that excited the delegates; he, not Mr Davis, was clearly the alternative to the centrists, David Cameron and Kenneth Clarke.

Where Mr Davis dealt in Thatcherite verities, Dr Fox updated and revised them for the world of today. He wanted lower taxes, a smaller public sector, rewards for enterprise. But he also wanted improvements in our "shamefully inadequate" mental health provision. He was also the only candidate to devote any time to the European Union - not to demand withdrawal as such, but to advocate looser alliance. This was in the national interest, he suggested, less on grounds of sovereignty than for economic reasons: because, in his - questionable - view, the EU is stagnating, there would be better opportunities elsewhere. He pledged to stand up for human rights the world over: giving a voice to the voiceless was "not just a duty but a privilege".

It might seem strange, even inappropriate, for a newspaper which has more in common with progressive liberalism than with the forces of conservatism to concern itself with the Tory party's internal debates. But it matters to everyone, not just to Conservatives, who becomes the next Tory leader. Just as the country desperately needs an Opposition that will really challenge Tony Blair - and has long suffered from the lack of one - so the Conservative Party will benefit from a thoroughly informed debate. And this can only happen if all the choices on offer are set out effectively.

In Kenneth Clarke and David Cameron, the party has two credible candidates who see the party's future in wresting the political centre ground from New Labour. But no leader from the centre will be able to operate effectively without heeding the party's right - and vice versa. It is in the interests of the party as a whole that the right has individuals able to make their case comprehensible to a wider public. Dr Fox did just that.

William Hague, an elder statesman and sage before his time, observed yesterday that what the party really needed was a leader who combined all the qualities of Clarke, Cameron, Fox, Davis and the rest. Failing that, he said, the candidates on offer had the makings of a fine front-bench team. He could be right. If this week's party conference ends up producing not just a new leader, but a forward-looking and collegiate Opposition in waiting, it would be good news for the Conservatives, and even better news for the country.

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