The Pope's political troops

The left has less to fear from right-wing extremists than from the new centre-right which, with a st

The political right is in power in much of the rich world - and it looks like staying there. This is because it is richly diverse in its range, and is acquiring an ideology, or ideologies - including the ideology of eschewing ideology. It spans (to leave aside neo-Nazi groups) a spectrum from far-right chauvinism to centrist social liberalism: and it is now coming together, beginning to adumbrate a "Third Way" of the right.

Across Europe, the far right looks deflated: Jorg Haider's Freedom Party, the junior coalition partner with the People's Party in Austria, has split and is expected to fare badly at the 24 November election; in the Netherlands, Pim Fortuyn's List, which came to power in the wake of its charismatic leader's murder, has already spectacularly imploded. And although the Danish People's Party, the Flemish Vlaams Blok in Belgium and the Norwegian Progress Party are riding high in the polls, none is in government.

In Italy, the right is regarded as devoid of ideology. Silvio Berlusconi, creator and leader of Forza Italia and now prime minister, liked to present himself and his party as winners, using both footballing and business rhetoric to underpin the impression that here was an irresistible force brushing aside the previously over-ideologised Italian political groupings. But the rhetoric is not enough to sustain him in power - the more so now, when both Italian football and the Italian economy are losing ground to their European competitors.

Catholicism now bids to fill this ideological gap in Italy. It had always underpinned the values and the positions of the pre-1990s Christian Democratic centre-right: indeed, Catholicism so permeated the Christian Democrats that left-wing Catholicism found a home in the party, producing a rather shapeless if powerful political force that proved more radical on some issues than the Communist Party.

Today's Catholicism is different: it is not extreme, but neither is it centrist. In an essay this month, Ezio Mauro, editor of La Repubblica, wrote of a culture in which the values of family, faith and patriotism are being stressed anew, and are gaining stature from their association with a popular and conservative Pope - who last week addressed the Italian parliament for the first time. This Catholicism, wrote Mauro, has received "the baptism of television" - from the state TV service, RAI, in which a number of militant Catholics are well placed.

Could this move beyond Italy? Yes, since the redoubts of the right - France and Spain - are strongly Catholic countries: while the native Lander of Edmund Stoiber, leader of the German right, is Bavaria, the most Catholic part of Germany. Catholicism still retains a sense of itself as a - as the - world religion and in this guise, it measures itself against Islam - offering a bedrock for the values of a "civilisation" as a counterpoise against the militancy of the threatening radical Islam. Its assumptions are likely to lie behind the statement earlier this month by the former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing that Turkey is not a European nation and that it would be "the end of the EU" if it were admitted. Giscard recently had a long audience with the Pope and has floated the idea of inserting a statement of Christian values into the European constitution, which he has much power to influence as chairman of the Convention on the Future of Europe.

The most decisive moves, however, are being taken in the centre. And this is worse news for the left. The European social democrats had hoped to displace the right from the centre by adopting a broadly pro-free market economic policy, and dropping most of their aspirations to any kind of existing socialism. But among the governments of major states, this remains true only in Britain, where new Labour still marginalises the Conservatives. Elsewhere, the left flounders, while the centre-right consolidates.

This month, the three main currents in the French right - the neo-Gaullists, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats - came together in a grand rally under the aegis of the new party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). This was the grouping which, under the name of the Union for a Presidential Majority, was put together to ensure the re-election of Jacques Chirac earlier this year; now, it aims to bring together the once-warring fiefdoms of the right. They have elected as their president Alain Juppe, the former prime minister who led the last government of the right, which went out of office in 1997.

Ideology, for so long the wrecker of parties, is no longer an issue. French Liberals, Christian Democrats and neo-Gaullists no longer differ widely on Europe, the economy or social measures. They all think the state should be strong, that France should retain its identity within Europe and that the economy should be more or less open, and more private than public.

In this newfound unity, the right exposes the cruel divergences on the French left - the Socialists, who have split, the Greens and the Trotskyites, who remain too extreme to govern.

The schisms in the French left are mirrored elsewhere - especially in Italy and Spain, where groups within and outside the main parties of the left still strain after either socialism or protection against the effects of globalisation.

Significantly, the keynote speaker at the UMP rally this month was Jose MarIa Aznar, the Spanish prime minister and head of the Popular Party. The French rightists look to Aznar because he has brought a divided Spanish right - the spectrum went from Francoists to neo-liberals - under his control and led it to victory twice. In his speech, Aznar said that the French right needed "one party, one leading team and one project". Neither he nor Juppe, who also addressed the rally, gave much of a hint of the ideology of their groupings: the emphasis instead was on national unity, liberty, efficiency and concern for the poor coupled with more reliance on the market.

The revived European right takes heart, and a certain amount of patronage, from the continuing success of the right in the US. The result of the mid-term elections - in which the Republicans did better than the Democrats, unusual for a party in power - is part of this.

Crucially important for the European centre-right has been the softening of the Republican leadership - a softening that owes a good deal to Karl Rove, the president's electoral strategist, and even more to Colin Powell, the secretary of state. Powell, who began shakily, grasped some three months ago that his closest enemies were his fellow cabinet members, the vice-president, Dick Cheney, and the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. Since then, he has instructed his aides that no day is complete without the State Department "lobbing a grenade", as early as possible in the day, into the territories of Cheney and Rumsfeld. The utility of such a "grenade" - which might be an interview, a proposal or the announcement of an initiative - is that it forces Powell's opponents to deal with it for at least the rest of the day, disabling them from harming his strategy.

Powell's strength coincided with Rove's reading of the polls, which have shown that, contrary to much European left theorising, the war in Iraq is not popular with business - including the oil business - which supports the Republicans, or with Republican supporters generally.

Above all, the focus groups showed that Americans did not want the US to go it alone. Thus, the way was opened for compromising with the UN Security Council, and agreement - which had seemed impossible in the autumn - on a double-resolution strategy that allowed the weapons inspectors to return to Iraq, as they have just done.

The European governments of the right can thus take strength from an ideological soulmate across the Atlantic, willing to take their objections to unilateralism into account and act on them. It does not matter that these objections were not the main reason for the change of heart in Washington, or that the main foreign influence on Bush is a leader of the centre-left, Tony Blair. Aznar and Berlusconi have in different ways committed their governments to support any US-led intervention in Iraq: while Chirac was able to take advantage of the change in US tactics to act as the broker of a UN resolution.

None of the present trends seems likely to do other than confirm the right's new hegemony. A continuing recession is generally bad for the left, which tends to benefit from a sense of economic well-being - such as existed in the UK in 1997. The continued dislike of mass - in some cases any - immigration plays to the right rather than the left. Crime, on the rise in most countries, is seen as a matter of prevention and punishment rather than understanding and cure - again, themes that give the right rather than the left an advantage. Finally, the ability of the right to present a united front contrasts markedly with the left, which has not yet sorted out whether it is social liberal, democratic socialist or even revolutionary.

The crumb of comfort to the left is that political change now seems to be very swift: after all, the left was declaring hegemony a mere three years ago.