Leading Article: A leadership battle lost before it's fought

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The Independent Online
For a party that has lately been making such a song and dance about the strength of the nation state and the sterling qualities of our House of Commons, Tory MPs have organised a singularly unimpressive beauty contest for their party leadership. For a start, they cannot even muster a woman to stand, and so, at least symbolically, offer a token of wider appeal. Why didn't someone persuade Gillian Shephard at least to put a marker down? The problem is what the Americans might call leadership-lite: the announced candidates are mostly second-rate, and some demonstrably lack the appurtenances of political success in a media age. This is Lady Thatcher's legacy, the gift to her party of someone who would tolerate only yes-men. The figures in her Cabinet with any weight, such as Lords Howe and Lawson, were squeezed out. The result is this week's display of Tory bonsai.

Only Tory MPs have the franchise and, to judge from what they are saying today, they are going to make their decision in about equal proportions on the basis of venom, revenge and the prospect of preferment. Talk about a shell-shocked electorate: First World War historians should give them a psychological going-over. John Major could have stayed on for a month or two, allowing a moment for rest and recovery: instead he has sent his party exhausted into a contest in which, to date, no candidate has had the courage or perspicacity to state the real reasons why the party lost, or come up with a clear case for believing in its imminent revival.

There is of course a wider significance to this contest, and it goes beyond the constitutional fact that the Tories are the principal opposition to Labour and as such have a public responsibility to get their act together. It is that sooner or later, we believe, the United Kingdom will have to come to terms with its membership of a confederation of European states. That does not necessarily mean joining the Single Currency in 1999, nor does it mean signing up to the integrationist project advanced by Chancellor Kohl. It does mean playing the negotiating game, winning friends and allies among the other states, thinking positively about the architecture as well as - don't we all like to forget them - considering the timing and sequence of bids to join the European Union by the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe.

There is no way this Tory leadership election will "solve" the European question; but it could be used to set the Conservative Party on the way towards accepting that there is no sensible alternative for this country but to tread the path of co-operation within a pan-European organisation committed to a lot more than free trade. Thus the latterday Poujadism of John Redwood would merely prolong the party's agony. Pierre Poujade was not an intellectual; John Redwood bears the badge of All Souls College, Oxford, which says he is. But Redwoodism seems of late to have turned into a mishmash of populist concern for cottage hospitals, and anti-Europeanism of head-banging intensity. Besides his narrow nationalism, Peter Lilley is a player of small stature - and that does not refer to his physical size. Stephen Dorrell has flip-flopped too often to be credible: he is coming from nowhere in particular, and should be regarded for the time being as going nowhere, either. The Hague lad is charming, intelligent, amicable, competent but (judge from the episode of the champagne pact with Michael Howard) in need of longer schooling in the wicked arts of politics before assuming the heavy mantle of leadership.

That leaves only two middleweights: Howard vs Clarke. Neither are great thinkers. Neither will furnish a Tamworth manifesto for the 21st century, adapting and modernising Conservative belief and party practice. Michael Howard's stewardship of the Home Office has not only been practically ineffective (crime levels seem to have been remarkably unchanged by locking up huge numbers); he has had little useful to say about the phenomenon of crime in our kind of society beyond ritual calls for discipline, family and order.

The recent Chancellor was a touch jejune in his defence of political discretion in monetary policy the other day. But he is a formidable political operator and a strong parliamentary performer with stacks of blokish charm. Not a grand figure, or a brilliant one, but certainly a man with the kind of toughness of mind that the next party leader will need to pull the Tory clan back together.

And he is, among this thin band, the only candidate with a forthrightly positive position on Europe. Here the persona which Kenneth Clarke adopts - the man from Nottingham with his finger on the pulse of manufacturing and services in the heart of England - comes into its own. In him the company director, the man with a pint in his fist in a West Bridgford pub, becomes pro-Europe. That Clarke has not trimmed, has not succumbed to the atavism that has swept through his party of late (like Messrs Hague and Dorrell), is also to his credit. Whether Michael Howard really believes in his little Englandism is beside the point. He has deliberately and openly made himself a Euro-sceptic - and, judging by his election result in the Folkestone constituency, there are many more of these holed up in large numbers behind the acacia bushes.

So Kenneth Clarke should win, because he is the only candidate who requires his party to face the inevitable now. However, Tory MPs are probably incapable of taking note of this sage advice, and will instead elect either a sceptically entrapped Howard, or a small and inconsequential political figure. In that case Mr Clarke can and must keep up the good fight, safe in the knowledge that the victor in this present election will only be a transitional figure. Some day, doubtless after much further blood-letting, the Conservatives will return to the modern world.