The return of the Tufton-Buftons

The Conservative Party is turning its back on Essex Man and selecting once again the squire, the ear

It is political incorrectness gone mad. Yes, it's Tory conference time, when every liberal sacred cow for four days feel the firm smack of British common sense at the hands of the Tory boys. Bogus asylum-seekers (boo), Brussels (no no no), the Macpherson report ("the mugger's charter"), Jim Davidson (where's that nice Jeffrey Archer?).

This is the ugly vision that Michael Heseltine sees from the Arcadian groves of his arboretum. In early September, he sniffed that the Conservative Party now represented "Little Englander Poujade lower-middle-class self-enrichment"- a charge that was echoed in the complaints about Tory suburban nastiness from defectors such as Shaun Woodward and Ivan Massow.

Speculation was rife among the Tories about a sinister plot by Conservative Way Forward, the Thatcherite ginger group, to manipulate selection meetings and mould the party in its own ghastly image; there were warnings of skulduggery in Kensington and Chelsea to get its king rat, Michael Portillo, selected; and John Major, on his Huntingdon patch, had to try to ward off the zealots. Indeed, the selection in July of Boris Johnson, the blond bombshell who edits the Spectator, for Heseltine's seat of Henley, was seen as the victory of the right over one-nation Toryism.

But the real story is different. With polite steeliness, local Conservative associations are giving short shrift to the Poujadistes and lower-middle-class parliamentary wannabes. The Leslie Titmusses are losing out to the privileged, to those with a decent pedigree, to the wealthy, and to those whose supreme talent is fitting around a grand shire dinner table. Ideology or right-wingness matter not a jot. The Tory party is preparing to return a new generation of Tufton-Bufton Tory squires, the sort who used to dominate the benches until Margaret Thatcher's peasants' revolt.

Of those likely to be elected for the first time at the next election, a goodly number are Old Etonians. Best known is Johnson, but there is also Bill Wiggin, the son of a former MP, at Leominster; the Honourable Jacob Rees-Mogg, the son of the former Times editor, in The Wrekin; and Ashley Gray, the candidate in South-East Cornwall, who is a grandson of the 3rd Earl of Cromer, a former governor of the Bank of England . . . to name just a few.

But it is not only in education or class background that we see a swing-back to older Toryism. The armed forces, bastion of order and hierarchy, are well represented, proving the late Jake Astor's quip that theTories are "not a party, but a regiment". Hugo Swire, the former director of Sotheby's and son-in-law of Sir John Nott gunning for East Devon, is a former Guardsman. Other army types include Jimmy James (Marlborough followed by Sandhurst), up for Clwyd West; Colonel Patrick Mercer, who toured Bosnia and is now canvassing in marginal Newark; and John Charteris, who was a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Scots.

Farmers are also enjoying a revival. Iain Liddell-Grainger, the tribune of Bridgwater, farms in the Borders; then there are Richard Benyon (pukka Newbury), Neil Carmichael (Stroud), Donald Stewart (Brigg and Goole), David Logan (Conwy) and Marion Rix in Milton Keynes, North-East.

The toff fightback is not confined to Westminster. In "egalitarian" Scotland, the Tories' contingent of 19 in Holyrood includes one titled aristo, three Old Etonians, two former career army officers and six farmers. In the European Parliament, the Tories can count on eight farmers, an ex-army officer, three hereditary peers and a lone Harrovian.

The tweedy, time-warp nature of the Tory party is reinforced by how few women are standing. None has been selected for the 22 "safe" Tory seats that have retiring members. Of the 57 Labour seats that could be vulnerable to a 5 per cent swing to the Tories, only six have female candidates. In the 19 Lib Dem seats that would fall on a similar swing, there are only two women in place. Two Asians stand a fighting chance, but there are no Afro-Caribbeans, and there is only one open homosexual, David Gold, in long-shot Brighton, Pavilion.

With a few exceptions, in the shape of the odd Essex Man or Sir Julian Critchley garagiste, the Conservative Party after the next election will look more like the Tory party of 1966, when Heseltine was first elected. Bench after bench of red-faced, pinstriped men, shoes well polished, full of public school bonhomie, with the heavy whiff of wet tweed hanging around them.

Perhaps this new intake might stop Portillo becoming leader. There is something non-U about his occasional bursts of intellectualism, his general cosmopolitan world-view and, dare we say it, his exoticism. Far preferable to these Tories, should William Hague implode, is Michael Kerr, Earl of Ancram. An old-school Tory to his fingertips, he would play well against smirking braggadocio and lurches into misjudged (and unpopular) populism.

Does it matter that the Conservatives are swinging back to being represented by the remnants of Uncool Britannia? Yes, it does, because class matters. Not in the sense that the party will become a vehicle exclusively concerned with defending and extending the rights of the privileged. The Tories will not start championing the total abolition of inheritance tax or overturn the post-Dunblane laws on gun ownership. But their concern with class will spell a change in that hazy quality, tone. Enthusiasm, religious or political, is bred out of young men in public schools, and politics is taught to be a lesser pursuit - a calling less important than, say, fox-hunting. These men will prove to be an antidote to the fanaticism of those newer Conservatives who see politics as a crusade to change things, rather than to conserve them or adapt to new circumstances.

Nor should the power of the institutions - whether boarding school or army - that have shaped these candidates be overlooked, because they foster an instinctive urge to maintain the status quo. These men are hardly likely to pose a significant challenge to the present arrangements - even those bequeathed by new Labour - or to contemplate an act of daring such as withdrawal from the European Union. Just as, back in the 1960s, Europe was regarded by their type as a jolly good thing, today Euroscepticism (as long as it is not taken too seriously or considered too deeply) is seen as a thoroughly sound proposition.

Anti-intellectualism, traditionally prized by Tories, was forgotten in the high-octane years of Thatcherism when (now becalmed) think-tanks churned out pamphlets, setting the pace for the 1980s. The Tories will now be able to slip back into being the Stupid Party - inoculated from having to act like grammar school thrusters and clever dicks - and just float along with the consensus, rather than challenge the basis of the political debate, as libertarian right-wingers would do.

This solid ballast is unlikely to lurch to the Poujadist right, or free-market utopianism. However right-wing their instincts, they are not the sort of chaps to put ideological fervour before pragmatism: they have been bred into the "hard-governing" Tory class. After all, the Tories have always been most concerned with gaining office; and their goal is to furnish Her Majesty with a strong government.

Robbie Millen is a commissioning editor at the Times