The feuding Conservatives have forgotten the most basic rules of opposition

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In the short term at least, the demotion within the Shadow Cabinet of David Davis, a possible rival for the Tory party leadership, is something of a triumph for Iain Duncan Smith. It was, after all, Mr Davis who blinked. By accepting a considerably inferior job than the one he had, he has allowed Mr Duncan Smith to show that he can take a risk and in the process enhance his reputation for leadership. Mr Davis might have deserted the Shadow Cabinet for the freedom of the backbenches. But he didn't.

In the longer term, it may not be quite as shrewd a move as it looks. In a Shadow Cabinet hardly overburdened with talent, Mr Davis is an articulate and confident media performer with real ministerial experience who was able, in the job from which he has been removed, to answer for the party across a wide field of policy. His successor Theresa May has a pleasant manner and the advantage, for a party seeking to broaden its appeal, of being a woman. Whether she has Mr Davis's political weight is far less certain; her failure to finish off the wounded Stephen Byers in her previous job as transport spokesman does not offer much cause for hope.

Further, assuming that Mr Duncan Smith lasts until the next election – a probability rather than a certainty – he has made it easier rather than more difficult for Mr Davis to succeed him. Were Mr Duncan Smith to lead the Tories to yet another substantial defeat, Mr Davis would now be absolved from any of the blame. He might be able to project himself as the solution rather than part of the problem.

This latter topic is of consuming interest within the introverted world of Westminster. It is far less interesting to a wider electorate for whom the rivalries and personality clashes within a still deeply unpopular Conservative Party barely register. This needs to be understood by the party rather more clearly than it appears to be at present. After all, there are hardly great issues at stake between the factions. There may be differences of style; there may be suspicions, even if unjustified, among leadership loyalists that Mr Davis is resistant to moves to make the party more socially inclusive in order to ingratiate himself with a current party membership which might elect him as leader. What there isn't is some great struggle of competing ideologies for the soul of the party. Indeed the collective Tory leadership appears at present to have the greatest difficulty in establishing whether it stands for anything at all. To take one simple example; does it support Gordon Brown's tax-funded increases in spending on core services; does it oppose them; or is it merely just a bit sceptical?

Whether because it still subconsciously believes – contrary to all the evidence – that it is the natural party of government and therefore simply has to wait for a return to office, or whether because, like Labour at times in the 1980s, it has simply displaced the struggle for electability with the more immediate excitements of internal in-fighting, the Conservatives too often look as though they have forgotten some of the primary rules of opposition. These are to have a heat-seeking instinct for the weaknesses and suppressed divisions of the government, to present a coherent set, if not of policies, at least of clear principles, and to look like a credible alternative government.

British Conservatism urgently needs to show it has the will to work to these rules. Unless it does so, yesterday's reshuffle will look like so much meaningless manoeuvring.

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