Tony Blair is one of life's cardinals: stand by for his emergence as our new Lord Protector

Get ready for a new Protectorate. We may not be subjected to Oliver Cromwell's roundhead puritanism again - no black cloaks or cone-shaped hats, no kill-joy sermons about the decadence of music and the bawdiness of dance. Once again, though, we shall find ourselves living in a kind of theocracy.

For more than 22 years, Cardinal Basil Hume, who has announced that he is dying of cancer, has been the nearest thing the British have had to a guardian of their national soul. The head of the Catholic church in England and Wales has taken over a role that the Archbishop of Canterbury has forfeited by wobbling too uncertainly while taking too many U-turns. (The latest bungled effort had Dr Carey supporting the war effort, while his church sold its shares in British Aerospace because it manufactures arms.) By contrast Hume, with his quiet authority and judiciously rare interventions (for example, the call for a royal commission on the family), has provided a people at once suspicious of, and nostalgic for, religion with something resembling true spiritual leadership.

So who will replace him? The answer is the one man who sees himself as all things to all people: Tony Blair. It doesn't matter that he is not a Catholic in practice; Blair is a cardinal in spirit. Like the red-robed princes of the church, Blair understands that a strict hierarchy is more than just a pecking order - it offers identity (you know where you stand when the favours are handed out) and an attendant sense of certainty. Moreover, hierarchy instills an understanding of authority - once you've seen the ladder you've seen who stands at the top.

In the world according to Tony, this authority is vouchsafed not by head-butting, bully-boy behaviour but, Vatican-style, by behind-the-scenes manoeuvres that leave no blood - just the dissenter impaled on a rapier.

Betraying the shrewd calculation of a Cardinal Mazarin rather than the woolly jollity of the Vicar of St Albion's, Blair sees the need for iron discipline to rein in the faithful and the new converts. He knows that the fear of retribution (social exclusion) as well as the promise of rewards ("things can only get better") will ensure that everyone sings from the same hymnal.

The Prime Minister has been grooming himself for the role of People's Primate for some time. Even as he roamed in the wilderness of opposition, new Labour's prophet spoke of the "mission" as well as the "project". His was a messianic vision of a new Jerusalem where everyone would attain fulfilment; the common goal was always the common good. He wanted our souls, as well as our votes. Now in No 10, he continues to dig into his Christian socialist past for ethical sound-bites ("economics is not about wealth-creation but about justice") while he invests his campaigns with moral purpose. Milosevic, poverty, the work-shy - these are not just bad, they are "evil". The community, the family and the entrepreneurial spirit are not just good for us, they are "good". New Labour's contract with the nation thus becomes a covenant. To be in with it is to be virtuous, to stand outside the fold is to sin.

This doctrinal approach has cast a holier-than-thou mantle upon the Prime Minister's shoulders. From the moral high ground where he sits in judgement, Blair promises to deliver, Cromwell-like, "not what they want but what is good for them". Such is our confusion, we are all too willing to follow like sheep behind this shepherd. He has led us, after all, from Tory hell - who's to say he won't lead us to heaven?

Cardinal Hume's sad departure will mark a new beginning for the spiritual life of the country. We'll still drink chardonnay, read Jilly Cooper and watch Men Behaving Badly - but the new Blair Protectorate looms. Get the hymnal out.