Now for an epic of insincerity

Portillo, the front-runner for Tory leader, wants to be caring and inclusive. But Simon Heffer think

Brace yourselves, for we are about to see the Conservative Party at its most disgusting. There will be no aspect of human behaviour - short, perhaps, of murder and incest - so degrading that it will not (usually by accident) be exhibited in the weeks ahead. These days, the party has leadership contests more often than Liz Taylor changes husbands. As in Dame Elizabeth's case, practice does not, regrettably, make perfect.

Predictions are dangerous, but let us get them over with. What follows is not my view of how this contest - the first under the new rules of engagement drawn up by the dear-departed William Hague - will resolve itself, but what the parliamentary party seems to expect. The MPs have to choose two candidates in a sort of primary election. The two with the most support are then put before a plebiscite of the whole party. The MPs expect, first, that the fight will turn out to be between Michael Portillo and Iain Duncan Smith; second, that Portillo will win - mainly, it seems, because, unlike Duncan Smith and the dear-departed, he is not bald.

The third expectation, that the broad sunlit uplands will then re-emerge, must remain a matter of extensive conjecture or, as Dr Johnson would have put it, the triumph of hope over experience. What sustains Tory MPs now is that the electorate will not be so lenient towards Labour next time, by which time it might have failed for eight years to make the public services work. But a happy outcome must still depend very much on just how bloody awful the Tory party is at the time.

This is not like May 1997. When John Major walked off to the Oval that Friday morning four years ago, there was some shock, but for most it was felt to be good riddance. Too many Tories were nursing their own private catastrophes to worry too much about the man who, they rightly felt, was to blame for them. When Hague walked, with almost all Tories having held their seats, the shock was intense, and there was widespread anger that he should have gone. One element has, however, so far been omitted from the fly-on-the-wall accounts of what led to his departure. Hague knew that if he stayed he would become the focus for dissent from what his supporters call "the left". The rumblings by "the left", not just about Europe, but about "inclusivity" (a term that does, indeed, seem to include everyone except the bald), would, he believed, have become more strident and overwhelming the longer he had stayed. Whoever ended up leading the party, it would then be taken in a direction that Hague himself would deplore. "The left", by the way, is what they now call Michael Portillo.

In the immediate aftermath of the second obliteration, when emotions were understandably running high, there was much anger among Hague's people for the way Portillo had conducted himself. "I've watched those cunts chipping away at him daily for the last 18 months," said one of Hague's senior lieutenants, with reference to Portillo and Francis Maude, "and I'm not bloody well going to let them take over our party." He may not be able to stop them. One of the most charming traditions of the Tory party is its cowardice: do not forget that these were the people who brought you Neville Chamberlain. The "head of steam" (so called) behind Portillo is largely composed of shadow cabinet members. They mostly support him because they believe he will win, and they desperately want to keep their largely irrelevant jobs, which most of them are doing so badly. It remains to be seen whether Portillo can win and the party not be divided clean in two by his victory. The early signs are not good.

As the Crown Prince preened himself on his return from Morocco, groans of loathing echoed round the ruins of Hague's camp. While some of Portillo's opponents were happy to confine themselves to personal abuse, others made more profound points. It was, said one, all very well to say the party should be more caring and inclusive. However, there were already two parties with broadly that agenda. The first, Labour, attracted the support of 25 per cent of the electorate; the other, the Lib Dems, netted 11 per cent. If the 41 per cent of punters who could not be bothered to vote are waiting for a party of love, compassion and the brotherhood of man, then they can't be very observant: the market place is already somewhat crowded.

The only place the Tories gained seats - Essex- saw them fighting with old-fashioned right-wing populism of the sort Portillo has so ostentatiously rejected. However much many would disagree with them, Andrew Rosindell in Romford and Robert Spink in Castle Point gave an impression of having serious convictions, even an impersonation of which the party nationally could not manage during the campaign. It won't do to dismiss this as something that can happen only in Essex, with its supposedly endemic neo-fascist underbelly of bigoted, bloated, selfish slobs. Those constituencies are pretty much like dozens of others around the country: they just happened to have well-known local candidates who let their conviction politics rip.

Hague's people blame Portillo for what went wrong in the campaign. They were suffocated by the lack of radicalism that stemmed from keeping tax cuts to a mere £8bn out of a budget of £420bn. They were not allowed to argue that it is not the quantity of money spent on public services that matters, but the value extracted from it. As the government is about to demonstrate, no amount of cash will work if it is channelled through creaking, sclerotic and inefficient structures. That was not, say Hague's people, a fight Portillo would let his party have. Hence, throughout the campaign, issues such as schools, hospitals and transport were avoided.

Despite calls for calm and reflection, this leadership election has already turned nasty. Even if Norman Tebbit had not seen to that, with his thinly disguised contempt for Portillo, there were plenty of others queuing up. Ann Widdecombe, who has committed the apparently terminal offence of not looking like Miss World, has been more or less told not to insult the party by standing for its leadership. David Davis is rubbished as unpopular, smarmy, "too clever by half" - and, in any case, no one has heard of him. Duncan Smith, so gratuitously bald, was not hurrying to enter the race, though he will be required to do so if the party is to have the left-right fight it seems to want.

Portillo will have to work hard to secure the support of any of the press, other than the Times and, possibly, its Sunday sister. His enemies will point out to the party that they should think hard before supporting a man who draws his main support from papers that have just told people to vote Labour. He must know that several red tops are already digging into the exact nature of his private life. He will also have to keep his acolytes under control. Already, one silly sycophant from Wapping has been on the radio saying it is hardly worth any of Portillo's opponents bothering to stand against him. With friends like this, he scarcely needs any enemies.

The Tory party seems incapable of ditching its role of providing harmless amusement for its enemies. Labour did not win the election because it could claim the whole-hearted sympathy of the British people. It won because it was not the Conservative Party. That party will always struggle now to make the British identify with it, because so many of its most prominent politicians are more shocking, more mediocre and more repulsive than the British could ever in a million years believe themselves to be. Yet the party's top table cannot seem to grasp this. The epic of insincerity, intellectual vacuity and downright irrelevance on which they are now once more embarking will not, I fear, be the last in our time.

Simon Heffer, a Daily Mail columnist, is our Conservative Party correspondent