It's another episode of Westenders

The Tories have become a soap opera. Their role is light entertainment

We shall not know for sure whether Michael Portillo's homosexual confessions have done him any harm until after the Kensington and Chelsea constituency has selected its candidate for the by-election and until that contest has taken place. What is immediately apparent, however, is that the admissions have done nothing to improve the already collapsed credibility of the Conservative Party.

This has nothing to do with the supposed rights and wrongs of homosexuality. When that credibility was collapsing during the Major government, one of the prime causes was the carnal incontinence of certain heterosexual Tories. The public used to be entertained (and the party diminished) by the grim details of what they got up to. The corrosive effect of the activities of Tory homosexuals is identical.

The point of the Tories used to be that they had policies and were either the government or the opposition. Many voters could be forgiven for assuming that, since the party has no realistic chance of winning the next election, and is about as good at opposition as an alcoholic is at passing a breathalyser test, its point now is light entertainment and titillation.

While William Hague and his chums are trying to invent policies for the next Tory manifesto, the public are lapping up this latest episode of Westenders. In the past, prominent characters from this high-class soap have been caught indulging in heterosexual activity with women other than their wives, or been caught with their hands in the till, or had a drink problem. Now soap history has been made: the first Westender to admit he used routinely to engage in the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name.

This admission gives walk-on parts to a number of other ham actors who long for any sort of billing in the Radio Times. Hardly anyone in Fleet Street expects that the revelations in a Sunday newspaper by an old boyfriend of Portillo's will be the last. They will harm him and his party - not because of intolerance among the British people, but because it removes the Tory party still further from the business of policies and government.

Until we have a referendum on the euro - if we ever do - there simply isn't a serious issue for the Tories to get their teeth into where they are greatly and obviously at odds with the Blair project. Eddie George runs the economy in a manner of which the late Enoch Powell would have been proud. David Blunkett continues his passable impersonation, as education secretary, of John Patten. Jack Straw out-Howards Michael Howard. This makes it painfully hard for the Tories to make any political headway.

In the months ahead, things will not, as the song goes, only get better. A couple of actors who have left the soap, John Major and Norman Lamont, have sold their stories about life behind the scenes to the public prints, and we shall be hearing a great deal of that soon. Another of the show's former stars, Margaret Thatcher, apparently violently disagrees with the way the present team of scriptwriters are handling the European sub-plot and is saying so more and more volubly.

Several other ex-stars who are still household names, such as Michael Heseltine and Chris Patten, are taking special guest roles in the rival soap, Constitution Sweet. The Westenders' fan club annual convention, at Blackpool next month, threatens to be a gloomy affair, and there is talk of axing some of the characters in an attempt to boost ratings.

It would not be so bad if the Tory party had become entirely about personalities: at least the punters can, from time to time, identify with those. Moreover, when in the old days it was about personalities, it was really about what those personalities represented - the rigid ideology personified by a Thatcher, for example, contrasted with the technocratic, consensus-driven approach of a Heath. Now, though, it is only the non-political aspects that matter: who's playing away, who's queer, who's both, who's on the take, who's on the sauce. In short, it's about who's going to take our minds off our dreary little lives this week - which is what all soap operas are supposed to do.

The other thing about soaps is that events are exaggerated. The catalogue of disaster, betrayal and conflict is never like that in real life. The Conservative Party, though, whatever impression some of its members and adherents might give, is real life. It is supposed to be Her Majesty's loyal opposition. As it queens around in ever more spectacular irrelevance, it might feel a lot better about itself and the rest of us might have a laugh, but the elective dictatorship it ought to be challenging instead becomes just that little bit more entrenched.

The author, a "Daily Mail" columnist, is our Conservative Party correspondent

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