Richard North, 08/05/2005  

You just have to read The Sunday Times comments of Michael Portaloo to know where the Tory "modernisers" are coming from.

Addressing the subject, "five minute routes out of the Tory wilderness", Portaloo writes: "In the first minute, I would ban party spokesmen from mentioning immigration, Europe or law and order. They would be allowed to speak only about the NHS, education and transport."

Therein lies the seeds of defeat. As they blather on about "schools'n'hospitals", ignoring the issues that allowed UKIP to creep in and rob them of up to 27 seats, the public will turn away in their droves and leave the Party in the wilderness where it will justly belong.

Nevertheless, that is definitely the agenda of one Michael Howard. His intended resignation – but not just now – is intended to allow time for the modernisers to stitch-up the leadership selection rules in a way that they will exclude the only credible right winger, David Davies.

Since Davies has more support in the constituencies than he does amongst MPs, expect a new system which returns the power to the parliamentary party, with the anointed successors being that Thatcher re-tread Sir Malcom Rifkind and the smarmy Tory boy David Cameron.

Too young at 38, Cameron cannot take on the mantle of leadership just yet, so the plan is for Rifkind to take over as caretaker, grooming "his boy" to take over when the time is right.

And all of this means that the Tory party will now be engrossed in another period of protracted navel-gazing and in-fighting, just at the time when the Party should be focusing on the forthcoming EU referendum campaign and getting ready to fight a long and arduous battle.

The only consolation is that Zanu New Labour will also be girding itself to fight a leadership battle but this is small consolation. While Zanu NL was tearing itself apart, the Conservatives could have taken the initiative and built up an unassailable lead for the "no" camp.

Thanks to Howard, having ignored "Europe" throughout the general election campaign, they will now ignore the issue through the first critical months when the "no" campaign could have been properly established. The "stitch-up" will not necessarily succeed, but it is made easier by the UKIP strategy of having deprived the Tory party of so many new MPs - many of whom would have opposed the modernisers.

But, for now, the politicians will be fighting their own narrow battles instead of concentrating on the issues to hand, further disillusioning the public. While they play, it will be up to us to fight the real battle.

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