There are two quite different ways of reading the fevered activity which Mr Major's rose garden resignation has set off. The first is that the Tory Party is accelerating its decline into the condition Labour fell into during the late Seventies: confusing its internal rows for a debate that absorbs the nation; mistaking its peculiar language for the vocabulary in which people discuss the issues that concern them.
The impression that traditional politics is marginal to many people was compounded by the other great political event of the week: Shell's U-turn over the disposal of the Brent Spar oil platform. The Government was no more than a bit player, Parliament no more than a sideshow, in an international political struggle in which two multinational organisations competed through the media for public support.
The other way of reading this leadership contest is that the Tories are in trouble because they have dared to put their finger upon an issue that deeply troubles the nation: the unresolved issue of what we want Britain to stand for in Europe. Beneath all the petty jealousies, rivalries and personal ambition, the Tories are playing out our own dilemmas about what sort of Europeans we want to be.
The leadership contenders - even if some do not contest this election - offer quite strikingly different versions of English virtues in relation to Europe. Mr Major stands for the quiet, common decency which governs the average British queue; a stoicism bred on inefficient suburban railway commuter lines and British beaches which can only be braved in summer armed with a cardigan. He rarely displays emotion and is determined to do his duty to the last.
Mr Major arrived at this version of Britishness from Brixton. Douglas Hurd came to much the same point via Eton and Kenneth Clarke from Nottingham. And it is not as if they have nothing to show for it.
The Cannes summit this weekend will likely confirm 1999 as the earliest a single European currency could be created. A Delorsian vision of a federal power regulating Europe has not come to pass in part because Mr Major and Mr Hurd have argued so hard against it.
The trouble is that Mr Major is too weak to deal with his divided party. At times this weakness is an advantage because it allows him to move with the tides of his party. But the cost is that he does not lead or inspire and is constantly wounded by threats of rebellion. He is not respected abroad, other than for his initiative to bring peace to Ireland.
As Mr Major is so hapless there is a tendency to assume that someone - anyone - would do better. Who? Not Norman Lamont, for sure. Where Mr Major is dull but dependable, Mr Lamont is vain and capricious. His account of Britain as a European Hong Kong, a vibrant trading outpost with strong ties to North America and Asia but disdaining Europe, is wrong: why should effective trading and political links with our neighbours make it harder to have such connections across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans?
Michael Portillo is more formidable. He is the Tory politician who comes closest to Mrs Thatcher's ability to convey radical ideas directly to voters in terms they recognise. Yet he lacks the judgement and proportion that a leader needs. The gaffes of the past year - racist remarks about foreign education systems, for instance - would be disastrous in the mouth of a prime minister.
Gillian Shephard would probably fare no better than Mr Major. So that leaves Michael Heseltine, who has moved like an alligator in the shallows to position himself for a final lunge at the leadership. Mr Heseltine could at least inspire the party faithful, put some fire in their belly and take on Labour with gusto. If that made the Tories more electable, then he might also be able to exert more discipline. Yet Mr Heseltine, too, has ghosts at his shoulder. Many in the party still loathe him for his fatal attack on Margaret Thatcher. Consistency is scarcely his stock in trade, as a glance back at his wilderness years writings confirms. The U-turns in government policy would not end under a Heseltine premiership; they would just be carried off with more flair.
In any case, a return to One Nation Toryism is not an option: the Conservatives are being comprehensively outplayed at that game by Tony Blair's new Labour Party. So that leaves the party still searching for a modern Conservatism, which combines a sense of national purpose with a radical view of the state and its institutions, a settled account of our place within Europe and sound economic management. At the height of her career in the mid- Eighties Mrs Thatcher showed what a potent thing such a vision could be. The search for that vision is the task that should consume the Tories. If they can find a way of turning this election into a hard-edged conversation about that, they will achieve something. If not, they deserve all that will follow: trouble, strife and eventual electoral defeat.Reuse content