Why the Tories won't let the best man win

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The Independent Online
Lessons one, two and three from yesterday's first-round ballot for the leadership of the Conservative Party are as follows. One, this is no way to elect a party leader; two, this is no way to choose a potential Prime Minister; three, that tells you most of what you need to know about the Tories' parlous condition.

If the Conservatives want to be regarded as a party fit to be elected in the next millennium, then their own internal elections should be a model of democratic propriety. It was perfectly possible to conduct a proper election this time round. All it needed was for John Major to do the decent thing, and hang on for a couple of months longer. The fact that the Opposition would be led for a time by a weakened leader (because he had just been heavily defeated) is neither here nor there: Tony Blair was so obviously going to dominate the scene for a time that it didn't matter much what happened to the Tories.

Mr Major would have enabled his party to think a bit longer and harder about its future, and about who might best lead it.

More important, though, the extra time could have allowed the party to devise new rules which could then be used to elect a new leader in the early autumn. Those rules should have been drawn up to ensure that committed party activists had a vote, along with other representative arms of the party. Is it not bizarre, really, that a party which spouted so much democratic rhetoric while forcing unions to ballot, and that lambasts Labour for allowing trade unions to play a role in its elections, still cannot bring itself to allow its own members to play a meaningful part in electing its own leader?

All of this is more than passingly significant, since the party would not have got itself into its present mess if it had had the wit to wait. And it is an unholy mess, that's for sure.

Work it through for a moment. Michael Howard, merely by virtue of coming last, is out of the running, even though there is only a palmful of votes between him, Peter Lilley, and John Redwood. Mr Lilley has a problem mustering the right-wing support split between him and his two fellows on that wing of the party, partly because he came fourth, and partly because no one seriously believes that British voters would elect him Prime Minister. Mr Lilley, in fact, has a consistency to his positions, is forthright, cogent, and served well as a cabinet minister, particularly in the difficult job of secretary of state for social security. But he utterly lacks presence, or charisma. There is no winning charm, no ruthless aggression. In fact he does not obviously display any of the personal characteristics that politicians need in some measure. He would appear to voters as a total unknown; worse, he is not someone they feel much inclined to get to know.

That leaves John Redwood. His right-wing position is the most intellectually consistent - indeed, it has been the most consistent of all three right- wing candidates, full stop. But he is completely unelectable as a Prime Minister. He is regarded as not being entirely connected with reality, and that eventually proves fatal in a politician.

Tory MPs are not wholly daft. They understand all that. And they will look at the arithmetic of yesterday's voting, and realise that none of the right-wingers carries sufficient weight, even in the limited confines of the parliamentary party. Add the fact that the party outside the Commons firmly rejected all of the right-wingers in the party's consultation exercise, and the conclusion is obvious: it has to be either Kenneth Clarke, or William Hague.

If the party were able to behave rationally, there would be no further argument. The constituencies want Ken Clarke. The public wants Ken Clarke. They know he has experience, and that he has the best chance of scoring points across the despatch box and the television studios against Tony Blair. They also know that the Tory right's obsession with Europe is not mirrored by the public, who think that the party had better get on with the future rather than continue agonising about its past bitternesses.

Probably, however, the party is unable to behave rationally - therefore it will elect William Hague. The reason will principally be a negative one: that the anti-European Tory majority cannot bear the thought of being led by Ken Clarke, the man most clearly identified with the policy (of keeping an open mind on our future in Europe) that they have most despised over recent years. In fact, they will do whatever is necessary to prevent his becoming leader. Mr Hague will therefore almost certainly come through to win, but by default.

This would be, for the Tories, a lamentable outcome, but in many ways a fitting one. At every turn the above account underlines how confused and defeated the party's condition really is. The best that Conservatives can hope for, if they do indeed elect Mr Hague, is that this untried, inexperienced, not-entirely-sure-of-himself man works out a way of remaking his party, and that he can learn leadership skills quickly, and on the run. He has the advantage of time: no one is rushing to hold another general election for a while yet. And his youth itself provides some opportunities, in terms of developing appeal. But the party's MPs would be much wiser to stop looking back, and think about what they really need now: a strong, confident, well-tested leader who can mount an effective opposition and rebuild the Tories' confidence in themselves. They should elect Ken Clarke before it's too late. But they probably won't.