Politics - Anne McElvoy roughs up the Tories

The Conservatives may be seeking a leader who can tell them what they're for, but if they want power

In all the statements by senior Conservatives about who should lead them and why, I do not recall one reflecting on which candidate could best beat Labour. Indeed, it is fashionable to appear to be above such considerations during this "debate about the direction of the party", as they call power struggles these days. David Davis said so this week: "We must first ask ourselves, not what we must do to win, but what must we do for Britain."

Must we? Parties seriously intent on revival have to learn to walk and chew gum. They cannot focus solely on hammering the incumbent, without a broad strategy of their own (Michael Howard's notable shortcoming in this year's campaign). Nor should they tiptoe quite so shyly round the "Who can win?" question.

If we may be so crude, what is the point of a Tory revival, however tastefully executed and beautifully balanced between traditional values and acceptance of modern Britain, if not to eclipse a Labour government led, in all likelihood, by Gordon Brown?

To judge which contender Brown would least like to face, we have to consider the Labour leader's position heading into an election circa 2008. If the transition does not disintegrate into tantrums, he will have one outstanding asset: being relatively new in office.

That causes difficulties to the likes of Malcolm Rifkind and Tim Yeo. Blowing the dust off the old one-nation Tories does not feel like the answer to the problems of irrelevance in the inner cities, lack of support in ethnic communities, and a failure to connect with vital sections of the electorate such as first-time voters and women under 55.

The shock troops of Notting Hill favour choosing a gambolling thirtysomething. "David Cameron would make Gordon look antiquated and ponderous," says one. Perhaps he would, but in terms of experience he would be a kitten taking on a panther.

The Conservatives need to choose someone who can both cope with Brown's strengths and make the most of his weaknesses. We do not yet know whether, as prime minister, Brown can "do" Middle England and speak to its fears and aspirations as Blair has done.

In the present field, only David Davis has that potential. He has many of the attributes prized in modern politics - an interesting "narrative" (brought up as the son of a single mother in impoverished circumstances) and a quirky streak that sets him apart from other right-wing hopefuls such as Liam Fox.

Although he is identified with the Eurosceptic right, his first rebellion was not over Maastricht but against Margaret Thatcher's attempts to do away with free eye-testing. If he chooses his issues with care, he is well placed to reach out to those hankering for "compassionate Conservatism" while defending the interests of that vital part of the electorate, the lower middle classes, who fear economic downturn will hit them hardest. Davis's main flaw is boastfulness - his tombstone may well bear the epitaph: "I saw that coming" - but he does have instinctive interests in territory where Brown likes to rule the roost, and where most of his colleagues look lost.

Addressing the grittier social issues and preparing an appeal to an insecure middle class is not a bad starting position. He is also a good parliamentary killing machine - the only shadow frontbencher to gain a scalp (Beverley Hughes) in the last parliament and the leading Tory opponent of ID cards, which will raise his profile in the coming months.

The candidate with the most thoughtful criticisms of Brown's thinking is David Willetts. But he is not a scary figure; in combat against the Sherman tank of Brown's argumentative style, I cannot see the tank coming off worse. Bring back the beloved old bruiser himself, Kenneth Clarke? Should he deign to run, we would be guaranteed a grudge match par excellence: there is still no better Commons performer and as a former chancellor he has the advantage of knowing where the bodies are buried because (as he once told me) "I buried some of them in the same places myself".

His drawbacks are apparent. The new PM would have the pleasure of taunting the leader of the opposition for being a keener European integrationist than he is. And Brown would find an easy target in Clarke's nasty little earner as a tobacco salesman to the developing world.

But it would be purblind of Conservatives to cast their vote solely according to their personal taste for one candidate over another, rather than reflecting on what sort of candidate and set of views could best hope to deny Labour a fourth term. They need a leader who can say what Conservatism is for, bridge the culture gap and develop answers to a diverse country's problems; but they need a trained killer, too.

Anne McElvoy is executive editor of the London Evening Standard. This is the latest in our series of political columns by guest writers

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, G8 protest: how far should you go?