Eyes right for the best show of the party season

Poor Paddy. By rights, all eyes (forgive the seasonal exaggeration) should be turning to his conference sessions by the sea. It is hard, however, to escape the sense that the Liberal Democrats in Eastbourne just aren't where the action is. In spite of their electoral success in May, the Lib Dems lack bite. Tony Blair's assault on the centre has stolen many of their clothes, try though Mr Ashdown does on the page opposite to conceal the theft. Besides, if it is political fun we are after, our attention is drawn rightwards, Spainwards, SmithSquarewards. This week, whatever happens at the seaside, the main political chatter will be about the Tory party leadership.

Schadenfreude is a disreputable emotion, and so we must suppress a smile in contemplating the state of the Conservative Party. Our proud former rulers, once so sure of their prescriptions for Britain, have fallen with a sad but oddly satisfying bump - satisfying, because there is always a part of all of us that enjoys seeing hubris brought down. But eventually the Tories must, for the sake of pluralist democracy, put themselves together again. In the interim, Humpty Dumpty in pieces makes a compelling spectacle.

It seems that whenever two or three Tories are gathered together, there in the midst of them is the spectre of young Mr Hague. We reported on Saturday that the gathering of John Major and Chris Patten around Tristan Garel-Jones's dinner table in Candeleda was not, according to the players at least, a significant event. The leadership and the prospects for Chris Patten were not discussed (we don't think). It is possible also to note Michael Heseltine's renewed interest in the publishing business without remembering his very safe Henley constituency (but only just). Likewise, there is a reading of Alan Clark's public denunciation of William Hague's reform plans which does not amount to a complete repudiation of Mr Hague (though it's a strain to work it out). And perhaps Kenneth Clarke's self- revelation yesterday as an opponent of Britain's joining the Single Currency in 1999 was an intellectual conversion, innocent of even a thought for party prospects and personalities (maybe). All these assumptions could be made. They are just not very likely.

Add in the machinations at Conservative Central Office, and the simultaneous departures of both the Tory head of communications and Mr Hague's would- be Peter Mandelson, Alan Duncan, and the Tory party looks to be in a sorry state. And in the middle of it all is leader-lite, a man too uncertain, chosen too soon in his political career, a leader whose braggadocio this summer has convinced no one.

Mr Hague's is not, to be fair, an easy office. Thanks to the biases of the national newspaper press, his every movement is scrutinised by an army of over-excitable right-wing columnists and editorialists. They led the catcalls when Mr Hague appeared at the Notting Hill Carnival - as if there were anything wrong with a youngish Tory leader wanting to show his awareness of multicultural Britain by turning up and drinking out of a coconut. Nor did Mr Hague create the Tory disorganisation - that was accomplished under his predecessors. But Mr Hague has taken responsibility for moving his party forward, and the sharpest criticism that he deserves is that so far he has shown no real appreciation of just what a titanic effort is required.

Nostrums from McKinsey won't do it. The main effort has to be ideological. It involves dismantling the dogmas and the a priori into which the Tory party has become locked. It demands policy that runs with the grain of the public's practical concerns. What have the Conservatives to say about improving the education of British children above and beyond David Blunkett's valiant plan; or about, say, the means of ensuring that private train operators maximise the safety of their passengers?

It is not that Labour has all the answers, by any means. As the novelty wears off, the need for effective opposition to point out Labour's shortcomings will grow. However agile Mr Blair proves in melding centrist and conservative elements into Labour, space will remain for an imaginative party of the centre-right. To fill it, the Tory leadership will have to slough off the certitudes of Thatcherism. And of course there is (still) the looming question of Europe. Here is a recipe for conflict to be sure. The Tories cannot get back inside the tent of consensus politics (and in sight of electoral victory) until more blood has been spilt, and more hard arguments have been fought out in public. That is what Mr Hague and his would-be challengers need: a good hearty row, not a cheerless willed unity.