Here come the tieless wonders

If you wear a tie, you're not `one of us.' Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the battle for the heart and soul of the Conservative Party between the evangelising modernisers and the traditionalists.

If you wear a tie, you're not `one of us.' Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the battle for the heart and soul of the Conservative Party between the evangelising modernisers and the traditionalists.

FORGET the old school tie and leave at home your regimental adornments.

In years gone by, these may have been the symbols that marked you out as a future leader of men, but today they're ridiculed by the younger generation of Tory modernisers as they enter the fray for the autumn bloodletting in the race to become the fourth Conservative Party leader in eight years.

They're known as the Notting Hill set, a group of politicians, journalists, and public affairs experts who want the Conservatives to their back on centuries of tradition to try to catch up with the flagging New Labour project.

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Like the Church of England, the Conservative Party is confused.

One half of the Church is actively courting the Vatican, embracing the Virgin Birth and Mary's bodily Assumption into Heaven. Others support gay and women priests and are cosying up to the evangelical Lutheran movement, all of which are anathema to Pope Benedict XVI.

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The Tories equally are in turmoil - socially liberal v authoritarian, market forces v maintenance of public spending. If MPs and its 300,000 members don't know what the party stands for, how on earth are the voters expected to understand?

Favourite to take over the leadership is David Davis, the Shadow Home Secretary who is regarded as hard-line right winger. He's convinced any attempt to turn the Tories into a clone of New Labour, embracing every politically correct cause, will end in disaster.

"The public are not daft, they are not going to swallow `we are going to have this new package, this new image, this new brand,'" says Mr Davis, who says the party has to come up with alternative policies which will appeal to the electorate at large

But at 56, some believe he's too old to lead the party. He'll be 61 at the next election and should the Tories lose for a fourth time, would be 66 at the following election,

Many supporters of the modernising tendency believe the party should skip a generation and back arch reformer and Notting Hall Tory David Cameron for the job.

Believed to be Michael Howard's preferred choice, the 38 year-old is leader of the "tieless wonders" - possibly because he doesn't want to advertise the fact that he went to Eton.

The epitome of compassionate Conservatism, he's staked his claim to succeed Howard by eschewing hard-line right-wing rhetoric. "Helping the most vulnerable in our society is one of our most profound obligations - and how we carry out this duty is vital.

"Conservative compassion is based on an understanding that we are all individuals with different needs. It is time for this aspect of Conservatism to come to the fore again."

With no official contest until Mr Howard stands down in October, another candidate is likely to be Dr Liam Fox, whose stock rose in the party for his attack on the Government's response to the French and Dutch "no" votes in the European Constitution referendums.

The Shadow Foreign Secretary, who is 43, might be the half-way house to appeal to those who believe Davis is too old and Cameron too inexperienced. Even though he's regarded as an arch Thatcherite, the former GP won't enter the right v left battle. "Smart politicians do not move to the centre - they move the centre to them."

Also likely to seek the top job are a coterie of those who can be regarded as being on the left or the centre of the party - the pro-European Kenneth Clarke, former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the openly gay Alan Duncan, Cambridgeshire South MP and Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, and Suffolk South MP Tim Yeo, who quit the Shadow Cabinet in order to lead a debate on the future direction of the party.

Mr Yeo, who after a summer of deliberation will either be a candidate or a king-maker, is a socially liberal moderniser, although has not yet taken to wandering tieless around Westminster.

His concern is that the forces of the modernising centre left are in danger of fielding too many candidates, making it easier for right winger David Davis to take over the leadership.

"Ideally, by the time Parliament breaks up in July, there should be only two or three candidates so that we can have a top quality discussion on policy and then a contest to decide who will lead us."

For help I turned to Douglas Carswell, the new MP for Harwich, who is on the right of the party but is seen as one of the key figures in the new generation of Conservatives in the battle to shape future policy.

"We are all modernisers in the sense that you cannot be against modernisation," he says rather enigmatically.

"We have to start asking some very awkward questions of ourselves. Until we've decided on the `what,' we cannot possible answer the question `who will lead the Tories?'"

One thing he is not is a Notting Hill Tory. "I'm a Clacton Conservative, and proud of it."

And while Tories go through yet another leadership crisis - and with the Liberal Democrats incomprehensibly moribund under a leader who has hardly said a word since the General Election - what of Labour?

Tony Blair walks the world stage as a statesman and his ministers get away with throwing new policies about, such as road charging, which were never mentioned in Labour's manifesto.

Labour's superiority reminds me of Napoleon's old adage: "Never interfere with the enemy while he is in the process of destroying himself."

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