By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website
Michael Howard's resignation announcement may have taken most by surprise, but he has probably done his party one final favour.
The last thing the Tories want is another instant resignation similar to William Hague's the day after the 2001 election defeat.
Tories have some big choices to make
And there is no clamour for Mr Howard's head after what most believe was an effective election campaign.
Mr Hague clearly believed he was also doing the best by the Tories, but that is not how it turned out.
Thanks to the recently introduced election procedures, it tipped the party into a prolonged battle which ended with outside candidate, "quiet man" Iain Duncan Smith winning as a result of the grassroots vote and then suffering an unhappy spell in the leadership.
The Tories are determined not to go down that route again and Mr Howard has given them time to sort out a new leadership election procedure - which will inevitably mean giving MPs the greatest say.
And he has also ensured that should be a swift process to allow his eventual successor time to bed in before the next election in 2009 or 2010.
There will be some in the Tory party who will grumble that he has not given them time to recover from the election defeat before being thrown into another, internal campaign.
And there is no doubt that the contenders will start positioning themselves immediately for the contest which most will hope comes within the next six to 12 months.
But most Conservatives probably believed the best they could hope for from this general election was an honourable second place, and Mr Howard has delivered that.
So it was always highly likely the party would then start another process of re-evaluation.
And the question remains: where do they go from here - do they continue building or return to their old destructive ways?
Howard ran a good campaign
Mr Howard can comfort himself with the thought that he probably achieved enough to head off any suggestions that he is personally to blame for the election failure.
Indeed, when he became the surprise successor to Iain Duncan Smith in 2004 at the age of 62, most believed his only task was to stop the Tory party destroying itself.
But the question even back then was whether the Tories needed to go through some sort of painful re-birth similar to the one carried out by Labour in the 1990s, first under Neil Kinnock then most importantly by Tony Blair.
Should the party finally decide to continue what many perceive as a drift to the right, away from the centre ground so successfully colonised by Labour?
With Tony Blair's troops holding much of that old ground, it is certainly difficult to see the Tories moving to the overcrowded centre, although it is perfectly possible to see a leader in the mould of ex-minister Kenneth Clarke, if not the man himself, attempting to regain that one nation territory.
David Davis likely candidate
Or should the party go radical and move on to a new generation with new ideas - the "out with the old guard, in with the new" scenario?
There are certainly individuals like frontbenchers George Osborne and David Cameron who are seen as amongst the brighter hopes of the future. That future may have arrived.
And David Davis had a high profile campaign and is widely viewed as ambitious for the top job.
But whoever the leader might eventually be, he or she will have to have a new vision to revitalise the Conservatives.
One of the tests of that may well come with any referendum on the EU constitution and/or negotiations over Britain's relationship with Europe.
This is no small task but many Conservatives believe the blunt realities are that, if they fail in that task, there is little to encourage voters to turn back to the party.