Looked at objectively, solid progress was being made by the Tories under IDS’ leadership. They’d gone from -20 to level pegging and better, in the opinion polls. They’d stopped fighting over Europe. They did well in the 2003 local elections, arguably better than any of the 3 major parties. At their conference they’d even presented a range of solid, well thought out policies on health, crime and education. On top of that, Labour’s lost it’s look of invulnerability — the public no longer trusts the PM and the govt has actually looked vulnerable for the first time since it was elected. Thus it was looking as if the Tories might actually have turned a corner and be ready to come out fighting for the next general election.
So what happens? The knives come out and they remove their leader from office. Just when it appears they’re on to something, just when the govt is faltering, they demonstrate to the electorate that theyre still preoccupied with their internal squabbles and to anyone wishing to lead them that they might as well herd cats for a living.
This is not to say that IDS was a stellar choice for leader, but he was doing the right things for the Tory party. Under his leadership the Tories were repositioning themselves, coming up with new ideas for governing the country, inching their way to producing a coherent alternative to Labour, to presenting themselves an alternative govt with a clear vision of what they’re for and how they’ll govern. He didn’t have a great deal of charisma, but ultimately that matters less than having the right ideas. With practice, IDS may have overcome his problems in public speaking and moreover could have delegated his more capable public speakers to sell the message where it mattered. Besides people may well be fed up with the smooth speaking charisma of Blair and the lack of charisma might actually make people more inclined to trust IDS.
So where now for the Tories? ISTM their best bet is to unite quickly around a new leader and carry on with the strategy IDS set out. This will probably still see the party set back effectively 6 months whilst people get used to the new leader but is the best option. Spending a month or two with an actual contest is likely simply to reinforce the impression of a party still obsessed with internal factional fighting. But which leader? Elect Ken Clarke and watch as Blair calls a Euro referendum in order to see the Tories implode. Michael Howard is looking likely, but his public image in the last Tory govt was hardly positive and moreover he presided over the attacks on civil liberties that opened the door for Labour to do even worse. Portillo does not seem to want the job. As for any other candidates, they’re mostly unknown quantities, which may be a good thing or a bad thing.
At any rate this is a crucial period for the Tories, it may make the difference between being returned to power some day and going the way of the old Liberal Party.