Peter Oborne

As the Tories prepare to fight each other, New Labour braces itself for war

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Political reporters always overstate the power of personality in politics. Meanwhile, we understate or entirely overlook other factors. We are gripped by surface phenomena and captivated by the gaudy and the transient. The causes we ascribe to great events are hopelessly short-term, inadequate and trivial. We attribute something like mystic powers to the ability of a single individual to change for good and evil the current of affairs. Journalists may write 'the first draft of history'. But we bring to the task the mentality of the City trader, with his tiny attention span, worship of fashion and disdain for underlying values.

To take one contemporary example: the political characterisation of Chancellor Gordon Brown in British newspapers. Again and again, commentators refer to the Chancellor as 'brilliant', on account of the steady growth of the British economy since 1997. But this has almost nothing to do with Gordon Brown. The benign economic environment of the last five years is the result of the economic cycle, the buoyancy of the US market, the British supply-side reforms of the 1980s and the successful monetary policies pursued by the US Federal Reserve. The Chancellor has exerted some influence, but only at the margins, and very likely for the worse.

The same syndrome afflicts reporting of Tony Blair. The Prime Minister and his small band of acolytes are often praised for the allegedly devastating political skill which differentiates them from other, lesser players on the political stage. But this kind of thing is nothing more than abject power worship. There is abundant evidence to suggest that the Prime Minister and his advisers are just as fallible as anyone else. They have had so little to do with their prodigious electoral success that they might as well be lottery winners - good luck to them. It remains the case that anyone who led the Labour party would have won the 1997 and 2001 general elections. The late Labour leader John Smith would be prime minister today, with a comfortable majority, but for his untimely death.

To take another example: the decline of the Conservative party. Political journalists always ascribe Tory lack of vitality over the last 15 years or so to the failure of successive leaders. But that is to fall victim to the fallacy that political leaders can, except in extremely rare cases, change the pattern of events. They are just as much victims of circumstance as their followers; normally more so. William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith are reasonable, intelligent men, no better or worse than most previous Tory leaders who made it to Downing Street. But they are obliged to cope with new social or economic circumstances which condemn the modern Conservative party to opposition. These are, in no particular order, the economic enfranchisement of the British working class since 1945; the collapse of Britain's manufacturing base; an amelioration of the old class system and the end of deference; the weakening of the nation state; the decline of the nuclear family; and the sharp fall in church attendance. All of this poses insurmountable problems for a party historically dedicated to the preservation of King, Church and Country.

Any one of the above factors is of infinitely greater importance than the piffling matter of who is Conservative party leader at any given moment. To blame Iain Duncan Smith for Tory failure, or praise Tony Blair for Labour success, may answer an emotional need, but it is an intellectual solecism. Leaders are condemned to grapple with the intractable situation that they inherit. In the case of Tory leaders, they seem doomed to follow the same path and make identical mistakes. Iain Duncan Smith after 12 months in office has reached precisely the same impasse as the one encountered by William Hague at the same stage. Both men optimistically ventured out, like inexperienced navigators on a deceptively calm sea, to engage with the unfathomable complexities of 21st-century Britain. Then the wind got up. William Hague's response was to retire hastily to base; there are certain signs that Duncan Smith is about to follow suit. Last week he returned to the safe haven of family values. His henchman David Willetts, in his uncharacteristically turgid speech to the Policy Exchange on Tuesday night, made an attempt to do the same.

Meanwhile, party organisation remains a problem. No replacement has been found for Jenny Ungless, the chief of staff. The search for an overall communications supremo continues. The party's head of strategy, Dominic Cummings, whose appointment less than a year ago was a cause for hope and who brought with him an unusual clarity of vision, may well leave soon. His departure would be seen as expiation for the sacking of David Davis as party chairman. Wrongly so. If he does go, the move would be nothing to do with Davis and everything to do with his own doubts about the trajectory of the party. Davis's departure as chairman was coming anyway: as events have subsequently shown, he was fundamentally at odds with the modernising strategy upon which Duncan Smith was half-heartedly set.

Davis now occupies the uneasy position of challenger in the wings. He is an ambitious man, and everybody fully expected him to make a move at some stage: but no one thought that it would be this immediate. There have been indications this week that he intends to raise his standard against the government plan to drop Section 28, the law banning local authorities from promoting homosexuality. The Tory leadership had hoped that this vexatious matter would go away, but ministers are now set on framing legislation that will surgically expose Tory divisions.

Section 28 is an inconsequential issue. It hardly ranks alongside unilateralism, withdrawal from Europe, nationalisation of industry - all those great matters which tore the Labour party apart during its 1980s exile and through which the modernisers forged their identity. But apparently trivial subjects can have great consequences, and Section 28 could yet open the kind of chasm in Tory ranks as the Filioque Clause, relating to a difficult but obscure point of Trinitarian doctrine, did in the early mediaeval Catholic Church.

As the Tories prepare to fight each other, New Labour braces itself for war. Tony Blair has never looked as accomplished a prime minister as he does this week. It is fashionable on the Left to accuse him of being President Bush's poodle. It is just as plausible to argue that something like the reverse is true and that the British Prime Minister has skilfully guided the US President away from a perilous isolationism and back towards the international community. Their audacious strategy has been rewarded by Saddam Hussein's important concession regarding weapons inspectors. Commentators have concluded too readily that Saddam's move is some devilish trick. It seems much more probable that he is simply terrified of being killed. The resolution of Britain and America means that a new tactic can now be exploited in diplomacy: the credible threat of overwhelming force as a negotiating ploy. Saddam's concession should not be too readily dismissed. Meanwhile Bush, Blair, Saddam and the rest muddle through, actors in a drama that none of us comprehend.