Why the Tories must choose the right leader

Last updated at 08:58 31 August 2005

The world-weary wisdom among political bien pensants is that the Conservative leadership contest is of sublime irrelevance.

Forget their almost pathological death wish. The Tories, it is argued, are an anachronism heading for the dustbin of political history.

In a terminal state of decline, they are incapable of producing leaders of the stature and charisma of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (and it's the leadership battle between them that is the only show in town).

Apart from being utterly wrongheaded, such insidious cynicism is bad for Britain, bad for democracy - and disastrous for the Tory Party.

Yet they have only themselves to blame. For more than a decade they have betrayed their own party, their supporters and the country.

Too often consumed with selfhatred, they have been obsessed by ideological in-fighting and in the process they have shamefully neglected their duty as Her Majesty's Opposition.

The outcome? Four failed leaders and humiliation in three consecutive elections.

Thus the Conservative Party that dominated 20th-century British politics has allowed the most devious and manipulative government in memory to get away with murder.

In this context it is absolutely imperative that in the next few weeks the Tories choose the right leader, which is why Kenneth Clarke's entrance into the race - announced in this paper - is so important.

Let's face it, the Tory leadership contest has, until now, been a phoney war characterised chiefly by the remarkable number of MPs suffering from the risible delusion that they are potential leaders.

In truth there have been only two credible candidates, David Davis and David Cameron, neither of whom has made much headway over the summer.

Both men have strengths. The Mail likes much of what it hears about Mr Davis. He is tough, single-minded, ruthlessly ambitious and, as the child of a single mother, brought up on a council estate, the embodiment of what a meritocratic party should be about.

He is also, it must be admitted, surrounded by some pretty dubious figures, and is said to bear a mean grudge. The worry is that he will engender further hatred and factionalism in this already riven party.

Mr Cameron, for his part, is a very attractive man. An unashamed moderniser, he has produced some polished if tantalisingly insubstantial speeches on big policy issues.

But it's hard to shake off the feeling that after just four years as an MP he is too young and inexperienced for the top job, and too obsessed with apeing Mr Blair rather than furthering conservative principles.

So what of Kenneth Clarke?

Too old (he's 65)... past his sell-by date... wants it on a plate... out of touch... too shambolic... so intransigent on Europe. It's easy to imagine the sniping that will flow from his own side.

But over on the Labour and the LibDem benches, his candidacy will be viewed with deadly seriousness.

For make no mistake, this is a big political beast who has achieved much in a very considerable political life.

This paper was mocked when it backed Mr Clarke for the leadership in 2001 - only for it to emerge afterwards that he was the candidate Labour really feared.

Why? Because he is one of the few Tories possessed of a normalcy that enables him to connect his party with the wider electorate.

The pint of beer, the cheroots, the suede shoes, the straight talking - he has an integrity, a common sense and common touch that is in such short supply in his party.

The question is - and it is a big one - can he rise to the challenge?

We know his strengths - he's fearless, oozes confidence, boasts with some justification an unrivalled track record in government, and is a supreme Commons performer.

Above all he is one of life's optimists and genuinely believes he can lead the Tories back to power.

For a party that seems to have lost any shred of self-belief during its years in the wilderness, that's not to be sniffed at.

It is now up to Mr Clarke to show that he still has the energy, the ideas, the policies and the sheer political hunger to restore the fortunes of his party.

Above all, can he square the Eurocircle?

For what are we to make of his decision finally to speak out against the euro, despite his life-long enthusiasm for all things European?

Some might brand him opportunistic given the bloodyminded stubbornness with which he has paraded his Europhile credentials over the years.

But this paper, which has been consistently Eurosceptic, has long argued that the debate over the euro has, for the forseeable future, been overtaken by events.

So isn't Mr Clarke showing precisely the kind of astute pragmatism that has been in such short supply in the Tory Party?

But his greatest appeal, as Labour's third term degenerates into a Blair/Brown power struggle, is that he has two invaluable aces up his sleeve.

Firstly, as the economy falters and tax rises look inevitable, no one in his party is better placed to attack the Government's economic record.

He knows of what he speaks. In his years in the Treasury he laid the foundations for the economic success for which a grateful Gordon Brown has taken the credit.

Secondly, on Iraq Mr Clarke is uniquely qualified to start a longoverdue demolition job on this Government's shameful war record and to restore Britain's integrity on the international stage.

The ineluctable truth is that Mr Blair led Britain into an illegal war on the coat-tails of the Americans, lying to the country as he did so - and has disgracefully got away with it.

Michael Howard and Iain Duncan Smith were both fatally compromised by the Tory Party's decision to support the war to the hilt.

Mr Clarke has none of that baggage. He bravely spoke out against the war - and no one has dared accuse him of not being a patriot.

He is rightly contemptuous of those 'Conservative' MPs who seem to admire Mr Blair over Iraq.

With the violent anarchy in that benighted land certain to increase in the weeks running up to the October referendum on the new constitution, the Government will be vulnerable as never before.

As he reveals in our pages today, Mr Clarke will not hesitate to draw the link between the Iraq imbroglio and the July terrorist attacks in London.

Meanwhile, on the domestic front he will be itching to confront this Government's dangerous illiberality and its eagerness to ride roughshod over individual rights.

On the economy and Iraq, Mr Clarke will be playing to his huge strengths. His maturity and take-me-as-you-find-me blunt plain-speaking integrity will contrast advantageously with Blair's spin-obsessed and callow insincerity.

That is not to dismiss the chances or qualities of Mr Davis and Mr Cameron.

Both men have much to offer their party. The huge question, however, is: can they unify it?

And Mr Clarke? Over the next few weeks it's up to him to convince us that he still has the hunger, energy and ideas to justify securing the ultimate prize that has always eluded him.

The ball is now at his feet. His entry into the leadership contest will galvanise what has been a lacklustre affair.

Let battle commence.

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