Conviction journalists

John Lloyd on the right-wing commentators who have brought Tony Blair to boiling point

Nothing pleases journalists more than to draw blood from politicians. It boosts their self-image as defenders of the democratic verities; and it boosts their pockets by swelling their reputations and thus their market price. Most of those working for right-wing papers would have been delighted, therefore, by Tony Blair's public fury over their coverage of Britain's agreement to assign 12,500 soldiers to the European rapid reaction force.

The press outrage had the flimsiest of bases. The idea of the force took shape in Britain under the Conservatives: it was proposed to the Council of Europe by Winston Churchill in 1950. It has had the approval of successive US administrations, increasingly anxious to get the Europeans to do more of their own backyard minding. It is barely conceivable that a George W Bush administration will be less supportive of a force that could mean fewer American bodybags - the more so since Bush has repeatedly said he wishes to intervene less in the world's trouble spots. The venture is wholeheartedly backed by the British general staff, most of all by its chief, General Sir Charles Guthrie - whom the Daily Mail did not hesitate to traduce as a toady (because he did not agree with its line).

John Keegan, the Daily Telegraph's military analyst, wrote that Guthrie had initially been sceptical of the force, then decided that he would ensure that Britain would be "all over it". (Only a commentator of Keegan's eminence would have been allowed to use such a phrase, which destroyed much of the right's case, in the Telegraph. He compensated by describing new Labour's ideas on defence and foreign policy as "vacuous".)

Nevertheless, Blair's response was wrong politically - not just because he gave delight to his tormentors, but also because he knows well that this is the area of their greatest strength, and his greatest weakness. Europe is the issue for the right-wing media. It defines them, and they define it.

Europe stands at the head of a complex of issues that can be described, in opposition to new Labour, as the new patriotism. That is fleshed out by a concern for what are held to be traditional, as well as British, values - defence of the nuclear family; preferential treatment for heterosexuals; strong discipline in schools; tough punishments for criminals; respect for such institutions as the monarchy, the hereditary peerage and fox-hunting. Some right-wing commentators and papers associate themselves more with one than another, in a kind of unplanned division of labour. But those who hold these views generally see them as an intellectually coherent whole, residing in the deepest recesses of character. Although some commentators may prompt opponents to follow the Abbe Sieyes's advice - "never try to argue someone out of an opinion into which he has not argued himself" - most of the beliefs are the products of thought and conviction.

Against them, Labour suffers two disadvantages. First, it is an avowedly relativist party (in its reflective, rather than platform, mode), taking some of the positions of the right and weaving them into positions of the left. It cleaves to a "third way" that often seems more hostile to unreconstructed leftism than to the right of the 1980s and 1990s. For those who like their politics internally pure and rhetorically satisfying, new Labour is a poor thing. It makes it a better government, but a poorer street fighter.

Second, Labour's friends on the left are much more infected than the right with the spirit of perpetual criticism. Journalists of the left often see themselves in the mould of a European or Russian intelligentsia, permanently in opposition to power and to the state. Many - such as the New Statesman's own contributors Paul Routledge, John Pilger and Nick Cohen, and Larry Elliott of the Guardian - dislike new Labour intensely. Columnists such as Will Hutton in the Observer and Francis Wheen in the Guardian treat it with contempt. The clearest radical-liberal voice, Hugo Young of the Guardian, lashes Labour for much of its record on crime, immigration and human rights. And the Scots media are famously hostile to Labour, generally from the left.

Hence the sense within the government that it has no reliable friends on any newspaper or magazine, only individual journalists who are broadly social democratic and/or not automatically hostile: Polly Toynbee of the Guardian, Donald McIntyre and David Aaronovitch of the Independent, Peter Riddell of the Times and Steve Richards of the Independent on Sunday. The Independent, closest of all dailies to new Labour, is also the weakest in circulation; and even it sought to hedge to the right recently, hiring Bruce Anderson of the Spectator as a weekly columnist.

On the right, by contrast, there are men and women with an absolute conviction of their rectitude, hardened in battle against what they see as a majoritarian and dangerous left-liberal consensus. (Both sides feel themselves to be an embattled minority - like two Alamos facing each other across a patch of desert.)

The man who is seen as the most powerful among them is not a commentator, but a reporter - Trevor Kavanagh, the political editor of the Sun. He performs a kind of Savonarola role, denouncing - on a hair-trigger - any sin of pro-Europeanism with a savagery and consistency that brook neither nuance nor second thoughts. His stature both within his paper and in politics has increased since the Sun ceased to have editors who themselves hold strongly political views, a trend copied at the Mirror.

Only two journalists rival or surpass Kavanagh in importance: Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, and Charles Moore, the editor of the Daily Telegraph. Both are personally shy men who take their moral mission extremely seriously, and without irony. Dacre, who sees Blair sometimes, recently left the Prime Minister fuming impotently at his quite overt message that the Mail will be unrestrained in its attacks if Blair goes full-throated for Europe. Moore runs a paper whose reporting remains well informed and sometimes courageous, but he sees new Labourites as shallow wreckers of a culture he venerates and as the enemy of traditional, rural pursuits to which he ascribes an almost mystical significance.

These are in the first circle. But a second circle contains as many true (if not truer) believers. Michael Gove of the Times and Melanie Phillips of the Sunday Times are eminent examples. The first sees, often through the prism of Northern Ireland, a government that compromises on everything, including the core priorities of constitutional order and the observance of law, in pursuit of illusory agreements and consensus where none can exist. Phillips runs continually and inexhaustibly on two main themes of permissiveness in sexual/ family relations and a culture of deliberately induced mediocrity in schools (in pursuit of an illusory equality). Both writers are informed and supported by a network of right-wing think-tanks, here and in the US, which have recovered their energy after the social-democratic surge of the mid-1990s.

Scorn is a fine ally to prose that sees itself in the great line of English essay-writing - Steele, Addison and Swift - and which, like these, draws its attractiveness from wit, or at least the higher sarcasm. Simon Heffer of the Mail, Peter Hitchens of the Express and Paul Johnson of everywhere differ in style, but they never forget that daily hatred unites the writer and reader in satisfying contempt for the pygmies who presume to govern. Others, such as the Telegraph group Johnsons (Frank and Boris), use comic effect to express a view of politics as a kind of bedlam of buffoons whose antics only mockery may adequately describe.

In all of this, there is an implicit common belief: that these commentators and editors are in touch with the sentiments of the masses, and can cleave through new Labour's spinnery and trickery to reach the souls of the British. And their successes explain Blair's explosion. On Europe, they have capitalised on the great gap in politics (created by the government's insistence that union is purely a matter of economics) where there should be a fully fleshed argument for Britain's closer integration. On culture, they have helped give expression to the dissatisfaction of the lobbies for the countryside and cheap fuel, and have gained a great symbol in the failure of the Dome.

Only one spectre haunts them - as it should, because it condemns them to impotence. The Conservative Party refuses to behave as they wish it to; or, in so far as it does so behave, it gains little in the polls. The awful vision of Bill Clinton, assailed by a feral, right-wing press throughout his presidency and soaring in the polls all the while, can never be far from their inner eyes. The Telegraph, in its editorial of 25 November, at the end of a week in which four by-elections yielded no Tory gains, reflected that "a unifying theme, a genuinely popular battle cry with which to mobilise enthusiasm for the Tory cause, is lacking". In an article for the Spectator, Lord Tebbit saw in the Tory social liberals grouped around Michael Portillo a kind of third column who stopped his party punching with the old Thatcherite one-two of neoliberal economics and social authoritarianism.

The media commentators of the right are faced with a party of the right that cannot wholly forget it must look like a government, rather than a column. It is the one fly in the embrocation that they administer to the aches of the nation.