This latest bout of Tory squabbling is symptomatic of a much deeper malaise

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It is midsummer and a touch of madness has descended on the Conservative Party. Parliament may be in recess, but the Tories are fighting among themselves again. The latest rift has developed over what is to be done about some of the older Tory MPs. Those close to Michael Howard, the leader, feel that the party needs an injection of youth and energy and complain that there are too many lazy time-servers on the green benches. These "bed blockers", as they have been rudely dubbed by the Tory chief whip, are being encouraged to step aside for the good of their ailing party.

It is midsummer and a touch of madness has descended on the Conservative Party. Parliament may be in recess, but the Tories are fighting among themselves again. The latest rift has developed over what is to be done about some of the older Tory MPs. Those close to Michael Howard, the leader, feel that the party needs an injection of youth and energy and complain that there are too many lazy time-servers on the green benches. These "bed blockers", as they have been rudely dubbed by the Tory chief whip, are being encouraged to step aside for the good of their ailing party.

Not surprisingly, the "bed blockers" are unwilling to play along. One has accused a group of metropolitan thinkers close to Mr Howard, the so-called "Notting Hill set", of briefing against him to further their careers. And meanwhile Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Foreign Secretary, admits that "mutters" have started about the latest Tory leader.

Yet again the Tories are airing their dirty laundry in public. It is not that those who want to shake the party up do not have a point. Some of the older Tory MPs are not pulling their weight, as their Parliamentary records attest. Too many are happy to sit back and collect their salaries while doing little for the party in return. But by allowing this internal business to flare up into a very public row, both sides only succeed in making the Conservatives look like a collection of squabbling incompetents.

It is not as if the Tories can afford to waste time like this. Their miserable performance in the by-elections earlier this month demonstrated the scale of their problems. A general election is expected next year and, to have any chance of denting Labour's huge majority, they must present a united front.

But the in-fighting is a symptom of a deeper malaise. Since Michael Howard became leader in November 2003, he has successfully sharpened the party's organisational structure. But in policy terms, after a promising start, the Tories have been hopelessly outflanked by the Government. The Prime Minister's decision to hold a referendum on the EU constitution neutralised the Tories' attacks on this issue. The promise of the Shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin, to freeze public spending in all areas except health and education allowed opponents to paint him as an indiscriminate slasher, even preventing any form of fightback over planned defence cuts. The Tories' "passports" policies to reform schools and healthcare were badly thought out and poorly presented, despite some intrinsic merits.

Most damaging of all has been their stance on Iraq. Mr Howard's understandable desire to loosen the suffocating embrace of his predecessor's gung-ho attitude to the war have left him looking faintly duplicitous. And all his contortions on this issue have not enabled him to hurt the Government in its weakest spot.

Meanwhile, the success of the Liberal Democrats exacerbates the agonies of the Tory party. In happier times, Charles Kennedy's recent claim to be the leader of the real party of opposition would have been met with ridicule. No longer. Victories in Brent East and Leicester South make it seem all too plausible. The prospect of a hung parliament in which the Lib Dems would hold the balance of power is not a comforting one for the Conservatives, however much it may reflect the true state of British politics at the moment.

Some Conservatives wonder whether their party will survive. The splits that have blighted the Tories since the days of Margaret Thatcher have often pushed their best talents to the sidelines. And there is still no sign of a political vision that could woo back the electorate, nor, as this latest spat shows, that they have learned the lessons of the past.

A healthy democracy demands an effective opposition. The Conservatives remain the most obvious party to provide it - and, indeed, the most likely party to succeed Labour. But there are no historical certainties in politics. One day, the Tories will stop bickering for long enough to realise this. The only question is whether it will be too late.

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