Last time they had a leadership election (or was it the one before? I forget), someone referred to the Conservative Parliamentary Party as "the most sophisticated electorate in the world": a phrase many of us took to mean that they were more practised at lying than anyone else. They're at it again. To the already declared candidates David Davis and David Cameron, we can now add Ken Clarke and Liam Fox. (Liam FOX?? Who persuaded him that he could win? Liam Fox, I suppose.)
My own dream ticket would be Ken Clarke and Malcolm Rifkind, largely for professional reasons (I can do them), but also because they seem like the kind of Tories I would vote for . . . if I were a Tory. There's something refreshing about Clarke's confidence, coming at Tony Blair from the left and pitching himself as the straight-talking honest bloke. (Though in that context the phrase "Ken Clarke declares his intention to run" could be a hostage to fortune: the thought of the former chancellor stripped to a vest and running shorts isn't one I want in my head.) Not that Clarke's a stranger to spin. The Nottinghamshire MP shrewdly launched his campaign off the back of England's victory at Trent Bridge, associating himself with the victory on his home turf for all the world as if he'd arranged it himself. (A bit unfair, that: he could have offered the England captain his services as heavy roller to counteract any inconsistencies in the pitch that might help Shane Warne.)
In the meantime, I'm not rushing into any impressions of Davis, Cameron or Fox just yet, on the grounds that, what with them being a highly sophisticated electorate (see above), we don't know what they're going to come up with. I've no desire to have my nose broken several times in an attempt to replicate the Davis features, only to be thwarted by internal Tory politics (which, by the way, is the only politics they do these days).
John Bird has a theory borne out by history: the Tories don't vote for who they want as leader, they vote against whoever they don't want. Thus they chose the little-known Margaret Thatcher because they didn't want Ted Heath. They chose the remarkably unremarkable John Major because they didn't want Michael Heseltine. They chose the young prodigy William Hague because they still didn't want Heseltine. They chose Iain Duncan Smith because they didn't want Michael Portillo or Clarke.
They didn't get a choice with Michael Howard: he appeared overnight (if he'll pardon the expression). On this form, I wouldn't discount Theresa May. Or Michael Ancram, who amusingly announced his willingness, after the Tories' second huge defeat, to stand as "the continuity candidate". Or, for that matter, Liam Fox.
Even more interesting is the way Tories are lining up to declare their loyalty ("I always knew David/Malcolm/Liam had it in him"). Norman Lamont chipped in with a corker while announcing his support for Clarke in Monday's Times: "I opposed the war [in Iraq] only after the Hutton report." I'm sorry, Norman, that's not good enough. That's like saying, "I opposed the Australians only after Trent Bridge", or, to pick an example closer to home, "I opposed the European Exchange Rate Mechanism only after Black Wednesday". All the evidence was there (or rather, all the evidence wasn't there) before the invasion began.
There was one American who showed remarkable foresight (as in "prescience", as opposed to "the bit at the front of a gun"). If only the Bush administration had listened to the advice of a former US defence secretary, whose words are worth quoting again: "If you're going to go in and try to topple Saddam Hussein, you have to go to Baghdad. Once you've got Baghdad, it's not clear what you do with it. It's not clear what kind of government you would put in place . . . a Shia regime, a Sunni regime or a Kurdish regime? Or one that tilts toward the Ba'athists or the Islamic fundamentalists? How much credibility is that government going to have if it's set up by the US military? How long does the US military have to stay to protect the people that sign on for that government, and what happens to it once we leave?" Who was it who saw so clearly the consequences of invasion and regime change? Why, Dick Cheney, in April 1991. Where was he when they needed him?