Yet the political effectiveness of the Conservative Party depends on its honesty about itself and the meaning of the electorate's rejection at the ballot box of its stands on Europe, social policy, parliamentary probity. Tory MPs may rush ahead and elect a new leader but the contest, however exciting, cannot substitute for the ideological re-working that must take place. That in return requires stern contemplation of the possibility that the Tories may never again be a united party. John Major deliberately precipitated this scramble by announcing his immediate departure - and his action was all the more calculated since he knew the very infrastructure of the parliamentary Tory party had been destroyed. Pique or revenge? Whatever his intention, he is the impresario of a brawl. The Marquess of Queensberry has evidently not been invited to write the rules. One of yesterday's choicer cuts (unnamed ex-minister on William Hague's likely hair loss and hence unelectability): "this guy is a golfball".
The Tories owe their country and the millions who voted for them last week better than this. Conservatism is evidently not going to depart for an extended away-day and produce some "mission statement". Inevitably the Tories will be tempted merely to react to the Blair phenomenon, trying like alchemists of old to discern how the base metal of Old Labour was turned into political gold. There will be calls - we have heard them already - for the appointment of a Tory version of Peter Mandelson, for the stiffening of Central Office's authority over unruly local associations, for feminising the Tories' pin-striped ranks. But these are means to an end - which is what?
The old answer, that the Tories wanted power broadly to maintain the position of the "haves", just won't do. Too many of their "isms" clash and conflict. Are the Tories to be a party of an intellectually consistent conservatism, one unfriendly towards change in the way the government is run but which also dislikes change (for example lost jobs) brought about by the operations of the capitalist system?
Abstract thought comes most easily to the likes of John Redwood, but all the Tory contenders are obliged to work through some key ideas. What is it exactly that the governments of nation states can do to affect their comparative advantage in the face of global tides of trade and investment; why are the French right wrong in asserting that globalisation demands a stronger European federation not a weaker one?
The Thatcher-Major years bequeath two great puzzles to Tories. One is how to justify their refusal to modernise our politics when advocating wholesale change and renewal in the economic field. To argue, for example, that trades unions are the enemies of economic progress without accepting that the operations of a landed syndicate in the House of Lords also constitutes a barrier to forward movement in government is not merely inconsistent, it is self-defeating. The other deep paradox is not new. Since the Victorian era, Toryism has tried to be simultaneously liberal in economics and illiberal in social affairs. The task becomes ever harder. Post Major, in the light of this election result, the Conservative Party must think through the consequences of the fact that there is such a thing as society.
And above all there is Europe. There is nothing inevitable about Toryism as a single political formation. That there will always be one or more political parties which espouse the interests of the possessors of property - that is a reasonable prediction based on the structure of politics in all the advanced democracies. But not all such parties are nationalist. The property or business party could easily define itself stoutly in favour of Europe, single currency and all. Why not two parties of property, divided by their European attitudes? If Labour were to seize the hour and make an indelible mark on the history of this country by reforming our electoral system, the entire basis of party affiliation might change. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that in a post-ideological age Michael Howard and Kenneth Clarke might as well lead different parties - Mr Clarke said as much about John Redwood yesterday. The party of Rorke's Drift (yes, that was the key historical reference advanced by Mr Howard in a Sunday newspaper) cannot surely be the same as the pro-business, socially concerned, pro-European entity Mr Clarke has spent his political life trying to build.Reuse content