The careerist wing of the Conservative Party, which for the past few weeks made itself indiscernible from the camp supporting Michael Portillo for the Tory leadership, has just had one of the nastiest shocks in its long and revolting history. Never have so many men of such little principle been so gravely disappointed. It said a great deal about the collective judgement of the upper reaches of the Tory party that almost the entire shadow cabinet should have backed the man who ended up coming third. There is the happy prospect that some of these repulsive specimens will take Portillo's cue, and follow him out of politics.
What they undeniably failed to realise was how little their hero's priorities actually resonated with the party in the country. A number of MPs who had been minded to support him had their ears bent graphically in their constituencies during the contest, for reasons I outlined here last week.
Portillo was simply not trusted by the rank and file. His opinions had shifted in a way that the average party member could not begin to fathom. Slowly, this was communicated through the thick skulls of Tory MPs. That is why Portillo failed to secure more than three of the 35 votes going begging when David Davis and Michael Ancram dropped out.
He, at any rate, is now history. The party must concentrate on a truly grown-up choice between men who represent forces and issues that the membership does understand. In Iain Duncan Smith, they have someone who takes a proper Thatcherite line on most questions, not least on the preservation of British sovereignty in Europe. In Kenneth Clarke, they have someone who would integrate Britain more deeply in Europe, and who has shared a platform with the current Prime Minister in his determination to do so. Clarke is a formidable politician, but one who is cordially disliked in cer- tain sections of the party in the country: Duncan Smith, relatively unknown outside his own party, is better liked within it, but still lacks the "star quality" that Clarke has in abundance. His task in the weeks ahead, before the vote of the mass membership is counted on 12 September, is to show that he can be the charismatic figurehead the party needs.
Duncan Smith starts with one apparent advantage. The party in the country is hugely of his mind on the Europe issue. Barely three years ago, Clarke suffered a big defeat in the party's referendum on European policy, when the membership showed by a margin of more than four to one that it wished to "save the pound". Instinctively, many of these people should be for Duncan Smith. If his campaign has any sense, it will capitalise on the similarities between Clarke and the Prime Minister on this significant issue, not stopping short of suggesting the potential for a conspiracy between the two men to bounce the country into the European single currency. Certainly, stranger things have happened.
Both contenders will have a tougher fight than would have been the case had either of them been up against Portillo. Although many in the country disagree with Clarke on some big issues, they are none the less seduced by his box-office appeal. He is, however, very much a figure from the past; and one of the main themes of Duncan Smith's campaign, which is set to become bigger still over the next few weeks, is that he is untarnished by the sins and catastrophes of the last Conservative government.
It is not impossible that MPs and commentators will make a mistake with Clarke, similar to the one many of them made with Portillo: that they will assume he will win because he is now the front-runner. Perhaps he will, but it is just as likely that he won't, and the mistake they might make in thinking he will stems, as with Portillo, from an inaccurate understanding of what the party in the country is really like. The grass roots wanted a fight between Clarke and Duncan Smith, and it is a small loss to them that Portillo is out of it. They now have two conviction politicians to choose between, but the signposts suggest that they are likely to favour one set of convictions - Duncan Smith's - over the other.
It is not, however, all over bar the shouting: and there will be a lot of shouting between now and 12 September. We have seen the shadow cabinet rendered impotent in this election, which is no bad thing. The grass roots might now be minded to render the parliamentary party impotent, in choosing someone to lead it who has not been the first choice of MPs. The experience and charisma of Clarke will take on the populism and integrity of Duncan Smith.
The Tories have, at last, shown a predilection for entering the real world, for addressing some of the big priorities of their members, rather than the private agendas of odd grandees. In an unprecedented - and, since the system cries out for change, probably unique - election, we shall just have to wait and see which of these two disparate men ends up offending the faithful the less, and therefore becomes leader of Her Majesty's loyal opposition.
Simon Heffer, a columnist for the Daily Mail, is our Conservative Party correspondent