Tory leadership special - Doomed from the start

Unlike Labour, the Tories democratised their party before they modernised it. So MPs were saddled wi

RIP IDS. It was not his fault. He should not have been there in the first place. It was only the quirks of the Conservatives' electoral system that allowed Iain Duncan Smith to become leader and prolonged the hegemony of new Labour.

As Tory MPs come to terms with the havoc they have wreaked, after dislodging the man they had not wanted, it is worth remembering that no political party serious about taking power has ever given its ordinary members the final say about who should lead it. This was the well-intentioned but fatal error committed by William Hague in the autumn of 1997.

As they gathered for their first post-defeat conference, Conservative activists berated their MPs for infighting and for undermining John Major. Hague's constitutional changes, with their quaint title "Fresh Future", were part of an attempt to reinvigorate a party which had grown used to being told what to do and say by Central Office and Downing Street. He believed a more open organisation - even one that allowed the airing of public differences over policy - would provide an attractive antidote to Tony Blair's hyper-control. In theory, he was right. The changes were backed overwhelmingly. In practice, it was a disaster.

Blair and the small cell around him who built new Labour worked from one clear assumption. If you want a party in your image, first you modernise it, then you "democratise" it. From his rewriting of Clause Four in 1994 to the charade of the policy forums to the choreography of party conferences, Blair ensured that the party spoke only if he knew what it was going to say. What is remarkable is not that this control has begun to slip since the debacle of Iraq but that, in a society which we are told is no longer deferential, it has lasted so long. Labour elects its leaders through a combination of MPs, local constituency members and "affiliates", mainly trade unions. Each has a third of the votes, so that no one group can be sure of getting its way. No matter what trouble Blair might get into from now, the rules are such that it would take a considerably more co-ordinated and courageous act of revolt than anything the Tories have managed to dislodge him.

For the past six and a half years the Tories have been incapable of being led, but they have served us no shortage of entertainment. As they sauntered along the committee corridor of the House of Commons on Wednesday to administer the final blow to their leader, several MPs smiled broadly. In his final plea to them hours earlier, IDS had told them that, two years into the job, he had finally got the hang of it.

Yet, after Hague had failed so abysmally to connect with the public, the defeat of 2001 had presented sensible Tories with their chance - a chance they threw away. Why did Michael Portillo seem to have second thoughts in the midst of the leadership campaign? (The idea that he might have voted against himself in the final round of voting is one of the more intriguing conspiracies of modern politics.) Why did Ken Clarke not make it easier for himself by sounding more conciliatory on Europe? After all, which aspiring leader does not trim a bit in order to get the required votes?

Clarke came top of the ballot of MPs, Portillo a disappointing third, and Duncan Smith slipped through the middle thanks to the 300,000 or so diehard party activists on whom the final decision was bestowed. Those people remain a rarefied breed. Slowly but surely, a new type of Tory party member can be discerned, people more at home in modern, cosmopolitan, urban Britain. But any public gathering of the membership, most recently in Blackpool this autumn, still provides a preponderance of elderly people comfortable with their prejudices. The concerns and priorities of many of these people are directly contrary to those of the floating voter.

IDS had received in the three rounds of voting the support first of 39, then 42, then 54 of the 165 MPs. In other words, he never gained the support even of a third of the Conservative parliamentary party. For a man with no experience of high office, with a history of rebellion against Major's government, with an uneasy manner, and with a bald head, that was always going to be an untenable position.

Once again the Tories found themselves with a leader who was defined by who he wasn't (not Portillo/Clarke). The same applied to Hague (not Portillo/Clarke) and to Major (not Michael Heseltine). Faced with their third leadership contest in six years, will they fall into the same trap again?

Conventional wisdom has it that Michael Howard would provide Blair and Gordon Brown with the toughest parliamentary challenge. The man of whom there is something of the night would not lack for profile. But he also provides the last reminder of the worst excesses of the Thatcher/Major years. The Eton-educated Oliver Letwin is the left's favourite Tory: a decent, erudite libertarian who, as shadow home secretary, has successfully challenged David Blunkett's world view. But he has a knack of being a little too honest - saying, for example, he would rather beg than send his children to the local comp.

David Davis is a clever schemer who could not be accused of being too posh. Michael Ancram is safe. Tim Yeo is affable. There is Portillo (again). There is Clarke (again). That is the bind the Tories are in. If more than one of them stands, they will hand the final say back to the activists. Given that the activists are as angry as ever at their MPs - this time for undermining IDS - they could again provide them with a leader they cannot work with. That is why the first few days after the vote of confidence are so crucial. Part of the authority of the new leader will be innate. Part of it will come from the willingness of Tory MPs to be led and to show that, as a party, they can be serious again. That can happen only if the leader has the support of a majority of the parliamentary party.

The position for the Conservatives is bleak, but not as bleak as it might appear. If, and it is a huge if, they can unite behind a single candidate, they have enough time before the next election to present a viable alternative. (Forget talk of a snap election by Blair. His advisers know that such is the unpredictability of the electorate that he could be punished for such an act of extreme opportunism.) Victory would almost certainly be beyond their grasp, but a stronger performance would change the dynamic between the parties and within the Labour Party.

A new type of middle-of-the-road voter is emerging (or re-emerging), for whom the Thatcher-Major years are a distant past, and who might contemplate opting for the Tories if only they had a credible leader. The irony of the past month is that the Tories had slipped into the lead in the polls and had started to assemble a series of interesting, if not entirely coherent, policies.

The events of 28 and 29 October were not what the Blairites wanted. They had hoped that IDS would limp on, each piece of "put up or shut up" bombast being followed by another act of defiance from the MPs. Blair saw IDS as his trump card to secure his third election victory. In recent weeks, he went soft on him. His cabinet ministers said little disparaging about him. Cherie had even sprung to the defence of Betsy in her travails with the parliamentary standards commissioner. Now Labour's next best hope is for a protracted and acrimonious battle, culminating in the choice by the members of another unsuitable leader. The last contest took three months. A similar period would divert attention away from the Prime Minister's troubles over issues such as tuition fees and the potentially devastating conclusions of the Hutton inquiry.

More enlightened members of the government see it differently. They give credit to Blair for seizing the centre ground, for marginalising the Tories for so long. But the absence of an effective opposition from the right has been damaging strategically, allowing Blair to define himself only against the left. It has also been damaging tactically, allowing ministers time and again to introduce flawed legislation, knowing that Tory criticism would carry little weight. Politics has suffered as a result.

IDS may be a victim of a miscarriage of natural justice. No leader could have put up with that amount of sniping. His detractors cannot point to a single event over the past few weeks that merited his demise. But that ultimately did not matter. His problem was, as Blair's strategists could have told the Tories a long time ago, he should not have been there to start with.