THE Conservative caravan arrived on the Lancashire Riviera last night, with its faithful followers braced for yet another rollercoaster ride bound to leave them feeling queasy.

Privately, there has been talk ofa gentlemen's agreement being struck to stop, or at least minimise, backbiting between rival camps engaged in promoting their men in the leadership race. Yet Her Majesty's opposition has become hooked on public bloodletting, a habit that was, a generation ago, the affliction of the Labour party.

Blackpool holds bad memories for the Conservatives.Who could forget two years ago, when the party last gathered here? Iain Duncan Smith was humiliated as his enemies openly plotted his demise.

With every ridiculously choreographed standing ovation the then leader received in his keynote address, one could see his authority draining away.

Not surprisingly, the quiet man was gone within weeks.

The faded grandeur of the venue, the Victorian Winter Gardens, is curiously reflective of the state of the Tory party - ageing, slightly cracked, a place once popular with the masses that has seen better days, a curious location in which to hear talk of modernisation.

Also, of course, its byzantine architecture, with a myriad of shadowy nooks and crannies, lends itself to corridor conspiracies and sneaky assignations in the grand circle. Journalists will love it but the spectacle will surely not do much for the health or public image of the Tory party as it attempts to find its fifth leader in eight years.

While there will be plenty of worthy contributions about health, education, tax, crime and Europe, only one subject will be the talk of the cafes, bars and restaurants - who's up and who's down in the battle to succeed Michael Howard.

A lot of MPs have declared their allegiances already, but many have not. So expect a lot of wooing along the windy outof-season promenade this week as the conference becomes a leadership convention.

Each of the main contenders will be putting himself about.

They not only have their main platform speeches, but will be rushing from venue to venue to speak at a range of fringes and receptions.

First up today will be SirMalcolm Rifkind, the shadow pensions secretary, donning the One Nation cap. Currently lagging well behind, there has been speculation that he will pull out at a time designed to be of maximum benefit to Ken Clarke, his old cabinet colleague, who the Scot backed in 2001. His camp insists this is "rubbish" and he will soldier on and enter the first knock-out round, yet veteran watchers of Tory leadership contests know momentum is important and if Sir Malcolm times it right, his endorsement of the former chancellor could give important fresh impetus to his bid.

David Cameron, the young Old Etonian moderniser, will speak tomorrow. "Dave", as his followers now call him, is promoting himself as champion of radical change, a compassionate meritocrat who is for ditching hard-edged right-wingery like patients' passports.

Ken Clarke, not a frontbencher but given a platform speech as one of the "wise men", will speak in the afternoon. He has been billed as on the left of the party, making much of his anti-Iraq war credentials. and someone who can give Tony Blair and Gordon Brown a run for their money.

On Wednesday morning, David Davis, the centre right front-runner who is also for extending opportunity to all, individual responsibility, freedom, lower taxes and better public services, will speak.

Three hours or so later, it will be Liam Fox's turn. The shadow foreign secretary is standing on a platform of choice, family, lower taxes and anti-euro. His camp is claiming William Hague, the former leader whom some would like to stand, will back his old friend.

So speeches will be decoded, remarks interpreted and body language read carefully, but the participants should be wary.

Last time, when all the pledges were counted, it transpired there were twice as many as the number of MPs. One grandee noted: "Everybody lies."



Leadership - This will drown out everything else unless something unexpectedly headline-grabbing happens.

The defeat on the rule change to give MPs the final say over who succeeds Michael Howard is likely to lead some to kick the current leader for plunging the party into another prolonged navel-gazing exercise.

Flat tax - George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, has set up a commission to look at the tax aimed at simplifying an overly complex structure. The new tax system has been introduced in Estonia and is being looked at carefully in Germany and Greece.

Security - The continuing crisis in Iraq is unavoidable and will be linked to Charles Clarke, the home secretary's new anti-terrorism crackdown, which many socially liberal Tories find too draconian. David Davis, shadow home secretary, is expected to claim the government has in some areas got wrong the balance between security and civil liberties.


Michael Howard, the leader, says goodbye at his end of conference speech on Thursday but, of course, he will linger for a few months more before his successor is installed at the start of December.

Francis Maude, chairman, will have to extricate himself from the mess of the rule change that did not happen and hope to hold things together as the contest for the Tory crown gets under way in earnest.

George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, who is not a leadership contender, will bash Gordon Brown over the chancellor's growth forecast downgrade, and talk about the options on tax and, in particular flat tax or flatter taxes, which could become the opposition's big idea of this parliament.


Michael Gove, 38, MP for Surrey Heath, is one of the new intake although as a columnist and leader writer for The Times he has been swimming in the political pool for some time. Erudite, the Edinburgh-born, Aberdeen-raised and Oxford educated journalist was secretary of the Aberdeen South Young Conservatives before heading south. He has helped write speeches for a number of cabinet and shadow cabinet ministers, including Mr Howard. He wrote a sympathetic biography of Michael Portillo and is now at the sharp end of the Tory modernising tendency, a member of the socalled Notting Hill Set. He is, of course, backing David Cameron, torch-bearer of the Tory change-makers, to become leader. Mr Gove is chairman of Policy Exchange, a new centre right think-tank.

Ed Vaizey, 37, the new MP for Wantage in Oxfordshire, is another broadcaster and writer, who after leaving Oxford University, advised Mr Clarke and Mr Howard on employment and education. He trained and practised as a barrister before managing a PR consultancy.

From the "posh wing" of the party - his father is Lord Vaizey of Greenwich - Mr Vaizey is also a moderniser and is the editor of the Blue Books series, which looks at new approaches to policy in areas like health and transport. He is also a leading member of the Notting Hill Set and is backing Mr Cameron.