What the leadership vote says about the Tories

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The Independent Online

There are two kinds of leadership election in recent British politics: those which have served as an advertisement for the party concerned, and those which make it appear divided. The process of elevating John Major, John Smith, Tony Blair and Charles Kennedy to the leaderships of their respective parties drew attention to change in ways which boosted their standing. That by which William Hague emerged as the Conservative leader four years ago, on the other hand, scored neutral to negative on a scale which runs down to that benchmark of bitterness, the 1981 deputy Labour leadership contest between Tony Benn and Denis Healey.

One of the legacies of the contest between Mr Hague and Kenneth Clarke was the move by the Conservatives to join the other two main parties in adopting the principle of one member, one vote. That was partly a response to the suspicion that, if the Tory membership had been given a vote last time, they might have preferred a different candidate, namely Mr Clarke, from the one chosen for them by Tory MPs, namely Mr Hague.

Now, however, that uncomfortable scenario might repeat itself. The Independent's survey of local Tory association officials last week found that, among this possibly unrepresentative layer of activists at least, Mr Clarke is again in the lead. An awkward possibility arises which Mr Hague's reform would do nothing to resolve. What would it do for the legitimacy of the leadership election if the members would have preferred Mr Clarke and yet were presented with the names of, say, Michael Portillo and Iain Duncan Smith? This is no mere side issue of the design of internal party democracy. It goes to the heart of the Tory party's ability to make the sort of difficult changes which would render it relevant and electable again in the jaded eyes of the open-minded voter.

It seems that the party grassroots, despite endorsing Mr Hague's isolationist policy on the euro in a ballot in 1998, recognise that the party must choose the candidate most likely to knock Mr Blair about a bit in the centre ground of British politics. The MPs, on the other hand, seem to put the single issue of the single currency above the desire to win. Yet, as Mr Clarke pointed out yesterday, the euro is never going to be a general election issue because of Labour's pledge of a referendum. At least Mr Portillo and David Davis (who writes on page 4 today) seem to recognise the dangers, to the extent that they try not to talk about the euro.

So far, however, this contest does not promise to be a great advertisement for the Conservative Party.