How fallen are the mighty..
A few months ago, everyone had David Davis marked down to ascend to the top spot in the Tory party, but over the space of a few hours in Blackpool a couple of months ago, the received wisdom slammed into reverse as the young talent of David Cameron exploded onto the stage and stole the hearts of the party.
We'll know the answer tomorrow [EDIT: I was getting ahead of myself, Davey C gets the job on Tuesday and thrown into the lion's den with TB on Wednesday] and I believe that the votes will show a turnout in the 70s (not just the average age of the members) and a landslide for Cameron.
And then what?
He's been strong on image so far - he's weathered the storm over allegations of cocaine use, but there's more to leading a party than just being young and photogenic. Honest. Even Tony Blair came to the leadership with more front-bench experience and he was surrounded by people who had a vision of where the party should go and some who were also immersed in where it had come from. I'm not so sure that Cameron will be so lucky. We also have very little idea about what he wants to do and where he wants to take the party. Is he on the right or nearer the centre? Does your answer depend on what he wants you to think?
If he's wise and able, he'll clean out the dinosaurs in the upper echelons resistant to change and remove those who believe that the only future for the party is in a dash to the right. If he doesn't, he risks a repeat of May 2005 in 2009. But then the political tectonic plates will have shifted further. Labour will be running with a new leader, somebody who may possibly recover votes lost to the Liberal Democrats over the past few years. The Liberal Democrats may still have Chuckles unsteadily at the helm, or he may have been deposed in favour of a younger/more vicious candidate (something that Cameron's election may actually make more likely).
Actually, the future of the LDs is one of the things about the Tory succession. We've watched the LibDems cosying up to the Tories in local government across the country and we're now seeing attempts by the new breed to drag the party to the right. Is this courting the Tories the same way they ingratiated themselves with Labour in the mid-90s - and then found themselves cast aside as Tony's massive majority in 1997 rendered their presence in a putative coalition unnecessary? Perhaps Cheerful Charlie harbours hopes of a Cabinet place in a Tory/LD coalition government - surely the only way he'll sit at that Downing Street table. Cameron's election may be enough to kick start a Tory revival sufficient to carry them back to power without the aid of a third party, in a way that Davis probably couldn't have delivered. A resurgent Tory vote could damage the Liberal Democrats as well as Labour, don't forget. It isn't that long ago that John Hemming's Yardley seat was that rare beast, virtually a three-way marginal between the major parties. Since then, the Tory vote across the City of Birmingham has melted away and those formerly safe Tory seats of Selly Oak and Edgbaston are footnotes in history.
Cameron will have a honeymoon period, but he will find himself tested soon. There are a number of prime opportunities coming up to defeat key government policy and his first electoral test will be upon him in May 2006 with the next round of metropolitan council elections. Good PR and youthful enthusiasm can only carry you so far - then you need something more substantial to take you to the next stage. Has he got that? I don't know and I suspect that very few people know the answer to that question. Truly, interesting times.