The liberation of the Conservative Party was extraordinary to behold. It glided almost effortlessly into the new world, the Prime Minister having at the eleventh hour acted in a way that has some chance of permitting it to restore unity.

She performed in the House with the humour of a politician even this one slightly relieved to see the burdens of office slip away. The party looked and sounded like the patient whose pain has, against every prediction, been magically released.

Further support for this suddenly more hopeful picture was lent by the succession candidates. They seem to agree with each other on almost everything. The culture shock which attends the ending of 15 years of ideological politics will take a long time to absorb. But its impact is immediately great. We are back to the old-fashioned personality politics, but with the rare ingredient so far of extreme decorousness.

Everyone will probably behave very well, and promise to serve under everyone else. One could hardly find clearer proof of where the appalling bitterness of recent months originated. It has now expelled itself from the system.

There is, however, a problem. Fifteen years of ideology leaves an uncompleted drama, and from this cast list the Thatcherite right, whether they care about Europe or the domestic agenda of the Adam Smith Institute, will feel they have a wretched choice. No true inheritor of the Thatcher mantle measures up to the job, so none has come forward. Whoever wins, this will be to some extent a case of going back to the future. Many Tories will be mightily relieved, some volubly disgusted. It remains to be seen, in an era that has exalted dogma, if the party is as capable of uniting as it was when its leaders hardly had two ideas to rub together.

Removed from the penumbra of Mrs Thatcher, all three candidates look subtly different. Michael Heseltine has undergone half his transformation, by securing the 152 votes that returned him from the dissident fringe to the centre of the party. His was a calmer, more measured campaign than Mrs Thatcher's, which spoke well for the qualities some see missing in him, namely balance and judgment.

Ironically, although he must remain the man least liked by Thatcherites, he would best perpetuate some of her characteristics. Thatcherism was as much a matter of style as substance. Only Heseltine persuasively embodies its radical energy, its rage for action, its propensity for self-dramatising apocalypse.

If the taste for that has not disappeared, especially in marginal seats, he will remain the lead runner.

But they start from square one again. This is a new contest, although decided by second-ballot rules and therefore a simple majority. Sporting metaphors which speak of an unassailable lead are highly suspect. This is not an accumulator, and loyalty to Heseltine will not count for a toss to more than a segment of his support.

If Tebbit is our guide, the right, deprived of a true-blue Essex Man, will plump for John Major, though his credentials as their champion seem to have less to do with his known policy stance than the fact he did not go to university.

He is in many respects a paternalist in the old, caring style, whose views about public provision will never have anything in common with Mrs Thatcher's, still less Tebbit's.

His strength is the breadth of his support, his frailty the narrowness of his experience. Although Mrs Thatcher more than once let it be known that she saw him as a likely successor, that was when she thought it was still a few years off. It has come too soon to dispose of the objection that Major has not seen much action, and made a poor fist of his time at the Foreign Office. Only if the party decides it is time to go for youth at any price, does he look like scoring. Nor is the 'third man' ploy very believable. Heseltine and Douglas Hurd are not so much at odds with each other as to invite that outcome.

Hurd is the man of stature and governing experience, the one most credibly to be trusted with the country's fate as it enters what could be a dark hour. He has about him an extreme and reassuring competence: less alarming than Heseltine, possessed of substantially more gravitas and wit than Major. He would delegate most, do least, and promote sanity to the topmost place from which it has fallen far.

He would probably have the best chance of defeating Heseltine, which was where the last act of this drama began at an early hour in Downing Street. But perhaps that is not the objective.

In the kinder, gentler Tory party, maybe it is the news from the dead past ie, the day before yesterday. So much venom has gone. It is a long time since so many Tory politicians, from the Prime Minister down, launched an era with the gentlemanly virtues once, so long ago, associated with their calling.



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