The Tories may be facing a decade or more in opposition, while New Labour single-mindedly tries to replace them as the country's natural governing party. Power to decide Britain's European future has been lost to them. By the time the Conservatives form another government the likelihood is that the high tide of centralising federalism will have passed, and some new settlement established.
During that period, some Tories may take ever more aggressively nationalist positions. But they will be able to act, at best, as commentators and political hecklers. In terms of practical politics, this historic question will now be resolved without them. Sensible Tories will take note and ask themselves what future their party has if it becomes a British nationalist ginger group.
But, of course, the Conservatives have not only lost their immediate influence in the European argument. They have lost most of their best leaders and much of what would have been their new parliamentary talent.
Their traditional methods of fund-raising are under imminent threat from reforming Labour legislation. So is their in-built hereditary majority in the House of Lords. They have lost their patronage; in time, many thousands of their quango appointees are likely to be sacked or not replaced. Yet they scarcely exist as a serious political force in local government either, though it is here they will rebuild first.
After their wipe-out defeats in Scotland, Wales, northern England and most major provincial cities, it is doubtful whether the Conservatives can even describe themselves, in 1997, as a great national party - never mind the great national party.
It is, in short, rather like the condition of a devastated country after it has suffered military defeat - the shattered leadership, the broken cities, the bankrupt treasury, the lack of overseas allies.
Given all this, how has the provisional Tory leadership been behaving? Not well, is the short answer. Within a few days, their leader deserts them (see left). There is a short, bungled champagne pact which collapses a few hours later. Not very coded mutual abuse is enthusiastically traded. One ex-minister describes Michael Howard as having "something of the night" about him and prepares for a public denunciation of his behaviour in office (and is rewarded with vicious innuendos spread against her).
They are behaving, then, much as they behaved in power, and if they carry on, it will have much the same effect. Anyway, partly because of the timetable imposed by John Major's decision to quit quickly, they are doing this the wrong way round.
The first question for the Conservatives ought not to be "whom?" but "what?". The choice of leader should follow and reflect the party's philosophy for opposition, a plan agreed after much more debate and self-scrutiny than we have seen so far. It also needs to involve many more people than those MPs who have scrambled back to Westminster - it needs to draw in the voluntary side of the party, councillors, Tory intellectuals, MEPs and many of the ousted but still formidably bright ancien regime. And this wider debate needs to precede, though not by long, a thorough reform of the party, opening it up more to the views of those who sustain it through the country and who rightly feel let down by the behaviour of some national politicians.
That, in itself, would help the process of rebuilding the party's standing in the country. And by depriving the Tories of much of their secret corporate revenue, Labour is doing them a favour. A healthy democratic party thrives by engaging with millions of ordinary supporters - using them as its antennae, listening to them and sometimes arguing with them. Being obliged to raise money from them as well ensures that that happens.
In some parts of the country, the remaking of the Tories will, or should, be radical. The Welsh and Scottish Conservatives are in the humiliating position of being left without a single MP, and seeing Liberal Democrats and nationalists become the opposition to Labour. The most urgent task for them is how to deal with the referendums later this year on devolution: should they carry on their pre-electoral opposition or should they accept that the argument has been lost?
They need to be very careful about opposing devolution. Apart from anything else, they need it. As this paper has argued for years, a Scottish parliament in particular, elected under proportional representation, is the likeliest way for the Conservatives there to recover. If it has tax-raising powers, so much the better: parties of the right require fear of higher taxation as a powerful incentive at the ballot box. Whether the Scottish Tories need to change their name, to Unionists or Progressives, is debatable (a step too far, I think). But they certainly need to reorientate themselves as a determinedly Scottish party working in an Edinburgh parliament and inside the UK.
In England, the Conservatives have to relearn from New Labour the lesson Labour once learnt from them: extremism is political death. The Tories need to oppose Blair in the Commons as tough-minded but mainstream supporters of welfare - the people asking numbers questions about every tax or spending change - and as moderate pro-Europeans and wary constitutionalists.
This last will be particularly important, facing a huge Labour majority and a highly centralised Downing Street operation. With weak opposition and strong governing-party discipline, there is a serious danger of the Commons losing yet more of its vigour, independence and purpose. It is now the job of the Tories to help make sure that doesn't happen.
Beyond the Commons, they need to reverse their former contempt for local government. Now in opposition, they need to discard the habits of centralism and become tolerant, liberal Tory pluralists, working with the grain of the times, not against it. For instance, they are bound to be defeated if they try to block Lords reform - so why shouldn't they attack the interim Labour proposal of an appointed chamber, and fight for an elected House of Peers instead?
The simple story is that the Tories have to start again, with new structures, new agendas, new political thinking. That is the proper reaction to a defeat of such dramatic proportions.
But there is something which matters almost more than any of that. The Conservatives have to get themselves liked again. They have been so widely disliked for so long that this may seem an uphill task. It isn't. The British are quick forgetters, suspicious of those in power and relatively tolerant of people who confess mistakes. So long as the new Tory leadership is not too haughty, or bitter, shows that it can learn lessons and is friendly to new ideas, the Conservatives will be back. Under whose leadership? Most of the above sounds a little like a plea for Kenneth Clarke. It is.Reuse content