Byline: MAX HASTINGS
THEY cut the safety net in Commons Committee Room 14 last night. If David Cameron cannot fly, the Tories are likely to plunge to Earth.
Yesterday's vote among Conservative MPs, which expelled Ken Clarke from the leadership contest, is almost certainly a decisive step for his party.
Of the three remaining contenders, two have small chance of winning a general election. David Davis and Liam Fox are competent politicians of limited ability, fit to serve in a Shadow Cabinet, but not to lead it.
Only David Cameron, wonder boy of the party conference, who has soared like Icarus and now has to prove that he can stay up there, offers a chance of returning the Tories to power.
Everything hinges upon whether MPs in their next two ballots, then party members in the run- off, reach the same conclusion.
The departure of Ken Clarke at the first hurdle is a sad end to his career at the top of the British politics. It also represents a misjudgment by MPs.
Ken may be too old to become leader - I think so myself - but he is a veteran heavyweight, by far the most popular candidate with the electorate at large.
It is his own party, not the country, which has repeatedly rejected him.
For almost a decade, the Conservative Party has been cursed by internal wrangles over Europe, and by a Rightwing obsession with ideological purity at the expense of getting real about 21st century Britain, and winning votes.
In 1997, it rejected Clarke in favour of William Hague in short trousers. In its most idiotic 2001 moment, the rank and file again spurned Clarke to elect Iain Duncan Smith, an ex-army officer with no discernible virtues beyond his anti-Europeanism.
Michael Howard was chosen by acclaim in 2003. Even Clarke, who was right all along about Iraq, might have struggled to do much better against Tony Blair in this year's general election, when the British people seemed in ostrich mode about the war, and the economy still looked good.
Today, however, things look different.
Labour still holds a formidable lead in the polls. But Blair is committed to quit before the next general election.
Many people, more than a few of them on the Labour benches, believe that as prime minister, Gordon Brown will not play well with the British people. He is a strange man, with no obvious populist skills. Hard times lie ahead for the public finances and perhaps also for the economy.
If the Conservative Party can find the right leader and the right policies, it can rise from the wreckage of its lost decade. The size of Labour's majority, and its demographic advantage in some key regions, make it uncertain whether a Tory victory in a 2009 election is attainable.
But Conservatives can at the very least position themselves for the decisive breakthrough.
In this leadership contest, there is everything to play for.
Dr Liam Fox has the support of the Right, and may win enough votes next time around to establish himself as a significant force on the Tory front bench.
He is a likeable man and fluent speaker, whose bedside manner plays well with the public. But he has never looked or sounded a first-team player.
He still carries a torch for his idol, Margaret Thatcher. Her achievement as prime minister indeed deserves much honour, but no Conservative leader who to win a 21st century election-will invoke her memory on the hustings. The most embarrassing baggage Dr Fox has to carry in the leadership contest is the clutch of Rightwing lunatics who support him.
EVEN if David Davis's party conference failure is forgotten, parliamentarians rate him low as a public speaker, unlikely to win hearts and minds either in the Commons or on the national stage. He is tough, fiercely ambitious, and a competent administrator. But these qualities are nowhere near enough. …