Tory leaders: they cannot be serious!

Conservative activists used to do as they were told. Now they have democracy, they want candidates t

The first round of the Tory leadership contest seemed to sum it all up: they can't even organise one of those. I write between round 1 and the unscheduled, make-up-the-rules-as-you-go-along round 1(a), the rerun of the first round after the tie for last place. Although both Michael Ancram and David Davis have done better than predicted, neither is going to lead the party. Their staying in the race is evidence of precisely the sort of pig-headed divorce from reality that has made their party what it is today. Or, worse, evidence that even the supposedly serious people concerned with this party now think it is all just a bloody game.

How their 42 votes will eventually be distributed among the other three candidates is hard to say. With only three votes separating Ken Clarke, in third place, from Iain Duncan Smith, in second, the competition for the second place on the ballot of the party's 330,000 members could be close. However, wise heads in the party were claiming that Duncan Smith would pick up well from the other two candidates, not least because Davis's tribe want anyone but Portillo, provided it is not Clarke. Ancram and Duncan Smith have always had good relations, and if the ex-chairman has any sway over his voters he would probably want them to go in that direction. Several who supported Ancram because he was an old-school Tory will, no doubt, find their way towards Clarke. Duncan Smith, whose first-round performance was highly creditable, should make it to the last two, but it might be close.

It was not a good result for Portillo. For a film star like him to beat a relative unknown like Duncan Smith by just ten votes was tantamount to a humiliation. It suggests that some of his early supporters saw the writing on the wall when they were in their constituencies the previous weekend, when many of them encountered the mounting rank-and-file dislike of the favourite. Although the Portillo camp had been careful in public not to talk up his likely vote, in private there had been some pre-emptive triumphalism about how he would coast home. For a so-called unity candidate to manage just better than one in four of the votes puts an end to that line. He may still win the MPs' ballot, when it is eventually concluded, but that might prove to be just the start of his troubles.

The party in the country is in a pretty unforgiving mood at the moment. Various newspaper polls of the faithful have shown that most of them would prefer a final contest between Davis and Duncan Smith, apparently again on the grounds that neither man is Portillo or Clarke. Memories are long, and the different roles both men played in the debacle of the Major government have not been forgotten. The letters column of the Daily Telegraph has been particularly instructive in this regard during the campaign, with a number of "disgusteds" writing in to say they will be leaving the party if either man ends up as its leader. This, if the system works in his favour, is Duncan Smith's route to the head of the top table.

If Clarke and Portillo were to end up as the last two candidates, the poll would probably be low, and uncollected subscriptions start to pile up. Neither man is the Thatcherite Tory that the party in the country wishes for. If the party had not been consulted, nobody would mind very much: in the past, the membership accepted unpopular leaders out of deference to the parliamentary party. However, now the party is consulted, it expects to be taken seriously, and to be provided with at least one candidate that its collective conscience permits it to vote for. Unless Duncan Smith is in that final two, those expectations will be thwarted.

Portillo excites such dismay among the grass roots not because of his homosexual past, or even because of some of his recent anti-Conservative statements about cannabis and Section 28. It is because he has become unreliable and, still worse, of failing relevance. The faithful really do want to hear someone talking constructively about schools, hospitals, transport, and law and order. Whenever they hear Portillo, they feel, he is expatiating somewhat stiffly on why the party must be nice to black people and homosexuals. Believe it or not, not all these people have any quarrel with black people or homosexuals: but they just don't feel that these groups and their causes should be so high on the list of priorities of someone who wishes to be a Conservative prime minister.

If any lesson ought to have been learnt so far, it is that, next time, the whole party should vote by a single transferable system for all candidates who choose to put themselves forward. The Tory party has modernised itself, from the bottom up, in a way that few of what passes these days for its leaders would approve of: it has stripped out of its system and infrastructure much of the deference and blind obedience to authority that used to characterise it. The taste of democracy has proved heady and compelling to the grass roots, and they are taking their new responsibilities very seriously. If only, they might reflect, some of the candidates who wish to lead them could be prevailed upon to do the same.

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