The PM's greatest triumph

Lords Hutton and Butler have given him the final imprimatur of the Whitehall establishment. Even Bla

As he surveys the scene ten years on, the Prime Minister can congratulate himself that on one task, he has made extraordinary progress. The emasculation of the Conservative Party and the realignment of British politics were never more in evidence than in Tony Blair's peremptory dismissal of the House of Commons during the latest, and perhaps final, debate over Iraq. He did not answer most of the most crucial questions, but he knew he did not need to. He has not had to pay for most of the mistakes that led to war; he now knows he probably will not have to. As this most dispiriting of parliamentary years closes, Blair has rediscovered his supreme powers of self-will and his mastery over his party. His friends believe that having survived a two-year ordeal over Iraq, he may return, a born-again leader, to the fray in September.

After the battering of Michael Howard at the despatch box, the Tories have returned to their now habitual condition of despair. Their fleeting optimism in the first months of his new leadership has disappeared. One explanation lies with Howard himself. He has made a series of miscalculations, the latest being to express continued support for the war while questioning the wording of the specific Commons resolution that led to the conflict.

The other explanation is Blair. He has left nowhere for the Conservatives to go. He has colonised many of their policies and subsumed many of their allegiances. The five-year plans for public services have been predicated more on shutting out the opposition than on presenting a radical Labour alternative. Each initiative on law and order is designed to minimise Tory attacks over public perceptions of the ruling party as being soft.

The takeover goes beyond policy, however. Lords Hutton and Butler, in their very different ways, have each served two functions for Blair. They have given him the benefit of the doubt over Iraq, but they have also given the final imprimatur of the establishment. One can feel the frisson as Blair finally appreciates that, exactly a decade after taking over, he may have turned his party into the party of incumbency, of natural government.

And what of the opposition? From the right, there is precious little. Blair's most dogged critics over Iraq from the Tory benches have been former ministers such as Ken Clarke, Malcolm Rifkind and John Gummer, who produced a compelling performance in the debate on 20 July. In a speech that was vintage Labour-style internationalist, Gummer reminded Blair that his moral crusade against Saddam Hussein happened to be opposed by the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dalai Lama. He reminded him that "if you want a peaceful world you've got to go the extra mile", and that he should have cherished international institutions and been more wary of the White House. Persuasive though such arguments might be, these Conservatives have long ceased to constitute anything like a threat.

Nor as yet do the Liberal Democrats, although Charles Ken-nedy's successes among the public have confounded his critics at Westminster. After another hesitant performance on the day the Butler report was published, Kennedy produced one of his best parliamentary performances in the full debate. He talked of what should be Blair's sense of "personal shame" and said of him: "I still don't think he quite gets what people in the country think of him." Yet even after the Lib Dems' victory in the Leicester South by-election, and the near-victory in Birmingham Hodge Hill, the breakthrough to become Britain's main opposition party still appears a long way off.

So disdainful was Blair of proceedings that he spent most of the hour or so he was in the chamber chatting merrily to Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, or with his legs on the table of the despatch box, looking up to the skies, musing either on his reshuffle or his holiday. When forced to respond, he resorted to put-downs more than to argument. He did not bother to hear a series of strong speeches and interventions from his own benches. The most trenchant assessment came from Straw's predecessor: Robin Cook pointed out that the intelligence never changed, only Blair's enthusiasm for military action, and that doubt and intelligence have always gone hand in hand. Yet there is a feeling that there is nowhere for Blair's critics to go. They know he played fast and loose. He knows they know, and is quite relaxed about it.

The Prime Minister is now being encouraged to do what they wanted him to do during that fleeting spring of 2003 called "the Baghdad bounce" - between the fall of Saddam's statue and the realisation that the war had not gone according to plan. The ultras are urging Blair to take on the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, and to move on to the one area of political territory he has failed to occupy so far - Labour's public services and economic agenda. The atmosphere remains febrile, ensuring that any struggle for domestic supremacy will have unpredictable consequences.

Even some of Blair's staunchest critics were, as they departed for their long holidays, beginning to believe the talk that he really does want to emulate Margaret Thatcher - and run and run to a third term. They still hope something or someone might persuade Blair to stand down, but are not sure they still believe it. They are beginning to wonder what a third term would actually be like and who might stay the course.

In Blair's mind, there appears little mystery. He has not seen his reign as a means to an end, a clever device to mask a hidden leftist radical agenda. He is what he is and is proud of it. He assumes there is nowhere else for Labour supporters to go, and is prepared to offer them the odd blandishment. He has devoured four Conservative leaders. The victor has taken the form of the vanquished.

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