Battle to lose the next U.K. election

The betting is still on David Davis to be the next leader of the once-mighty British Conservative party.

Max Hastings

A CARTHORSE might win the Derby, if coughing broke out in the favourite's stable and the other runners came to grief in a pile-up at Tattenham Corner. It is unlikely that many punters would bet that way, however, especially if they saw the aforesaid towing animal staggering through trial gallops with a comedian in the saddle.

Tuesday's (September 27) rejection of the proposed rule change for the British Conservative party's leadership contest matters less to the outcome than the ridicule the process invites from punters, the British electorate. It defies parody that most MPs and party members voted for change but it won't happen because the rank-and-file majority fell short of 66 per cent.

The result reinforces the Tories' image as bunglers. It leaves Michael Howard, the outgoing leader, wearing a cap and bells. How he must now wish that he had retired from politics with dignity back in 1997. I remember asking one of his colleagues why the then Home Secretary was again standing for Parliament, with years of opposition in prospect.

"Ah," he nodded sagely. "Michael still has ambitions." It seemed odd that a veteran Cabinet Minister approaching 60 should either want to lead the Conservative party or, in Mr. Howard's case, expect to do so. But the reason most of us are not politicians is that we do not share the strange cravings and self-delusions indispensable to a life in the trade.

Mr. Howard's leadership hopes were finally realised. He became, moreover, the only person in Britain who believed that he could win last spring's election. Thus today, instead of earning a comfortable living on the boards of a few major companies with public memories of his ministerial career mercifully fading, he finds himself beached.

Two years ago it seemed impossible that any Tory (Conservative) leader could surpass his predecessor, Iain Duncan Smith's record of inadequacy, but Mr. Howard has managed it. The campaign to succeed him will commence in conditions that compare unfavourably with Napoleon's retreat from Moscow.

Tory thought processes about the candidates are bizarre. Some of the rank and file, who will make the final choice, think their party can win a 2009 general election. Few MPs think so. On Wednesday I asked an elder statesman who supports the former Chancellor, Ken Clarke, whether it is plausible to invite the electorate to vote in 2009 for a man who, if he won, would be 73 or 74 at the end of a normal term.

"But we're not going to win the election," said my friend cleverly, "so that doesn't matter. The vital thing is to position the party to win the next poll but one, and Ken is the only leader who can do that." His remarks raise an obvious question. If he privately concedes that his man would be too old to serve as Prime Minister, why should voters support Clarke in sufficient numbers to make him a close runner-up?

Opinion is hardening that the newcomer David Cameron is too little tested. He is young, bright and personable. But none of us knows anything about his fitness for the top job. Comparisons with a young Tony Blair are invalid. The Labour party and the nation had seen much more of Mr. Blair when he took the leadership than anybody has of Mr. Cameron. If I was in Mr. Cameron's shoes I would demand a recount if by any mischance I won this contest. If he becomes leader his political career is likely to be over by 2010.

Clarke's chances

Ken Clarke has a chance of victory which seemed nonexistent three months ago because Tory gloom about his rivals is so deep. Even some rank-and-file Europhobes recognise the Europhile Clarke as a heavyweight, vastly more popular with the public than any alternative. They might, just might, be tempted to swallow a decade's prejudices against him, simply by desperation for power. Mr. Clarke is the only candidate who can conceivably confront Mr. Blair or Gordon Brown in the House of Commons on equal terms.

Yet betting men continue to put their money on the former Minister, Mr. David Davis, and they seem right. Since 1997 the most influential force upon Tory leadership contests, and indeed on the party generally, has been the Daily Telegraph. It urged the adoption successively of William Hague, Duncan Smith, and Michael Howard. Each got the job.

Today the paper looks set to move still further rightwards. It is almost impossible to imagine an endorsement of Mr. Clarke by its new political supremo, Simon Heffer. There is too much history, too much baggage, too much rancour. The chief voices of the Telegraph attach much more importance to sound conservative principles than to the squalid business of winning elections or wooing the foolish and deluded British public. The Tory rank and file leap up from their stairlifts, screw in their hearing aids and listen.

Thus Mr. Davis seems most likely to secure the honour of losing the next election. Most of us would find this about as appealing a prospect as becoming the Baghdad government's representative in Falluja. As we discussed earlier in the context of Mr. Howard, this is because we are not politicians. Mr. Davis has yearned to be leader of the Conservative party ever since he yomped the Black Mountains as an SAS reservist.

As a junior minister in the 1990s, no doubt he dreamed of commanding the dispatch box at PMQs while a Labour leader recoiled before his brilliant jibes. He was probably lying awake in bed last night in a haze of ecstasy about a future with a chauffeur-driven car, security guards and much-improved access to tables in restaurants.

Whether Mr. Davis possesses a coherent vision beyond all this, or even the intellect to create one, seems much more debatable. Former Ministers who worked closely with him were not impressed. He seemed articulate and administratively competent. But they question whether he thinks imaginatively about anything beyond the fulfilment of personal ambition. One dismisses him as "an adventurer," others suggest a lack of warmth and charm.

A bleak outlook, is it not, for democracy? Even those who do not wish to see the Conservatives back in government recognise that the enfeebled state of democracy in Britain today demands a credible opposition. It is hard to suppose that David Davis can provide this.

I am not one of those who thinks the Conservative party is doomed to extinction. Anything could happen between now and say, 2013. It is hard to believe that the thriving economy, and the electorate's consequent sense of wellbeing, can persist indefinitely.

But the Tory prospect for the next four years, as far as anyone can sensibly look ahead, looks ghastly. When Margaret Thatcher fell there were at least three impressive candidates for the leadership to succeed her, not including John Major. Today it is doubtful whether there is one. If there was a choice between attending five funerals or the Conservative conference next week, it is easy to see which would be jollier.

Far-sighted Tories are already muttering about persuading William Hague to take the leadership again after the 2009 defeat. Yet do not some of us dimly recollect that Mr. Hague was the great statesman who invented the leadership contest rules? This is where we came in.

- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

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