The media column - Peter Wilby rejoices at death

The right has had 30 years in the sun but that time is over and it knows it. I see here a connection

Rejoice, rejoice! For the first time in 30 years, the right has lost confidence. It no longer believes that it commands the political, moral and intellectual high ground.

This was brought home to me by an arresting Independent front page. It showed a gallery of right-wing US pundits who now admit that the invasion of Iraq was a catastrophic error. The war, whatever the other justifications advanced for it (some from the left), was essentially an act of blind faith in market capitalism. Overthrow Saddam Hussein, dismantle Ba'athism, privatise the economy, and peace and prosperity would automatically follow. Instead, we have anarchy, lots of dead bodies and an America more in debt than ever. This is a grievous setback for the right.

You may think it far-fetched, but I see here a connection with the disarray at the Telegraph newspapers. Increasingly, one is compelled to ask: what are these newspapers for?

Their proprietors, the Barclay brothers, clearly do not know. The daily editor Charles Moore and Dominic Lawson, his Sunday counterpart, have left. Both were deeply engaged with right-wing ideas. They encouraged writers, particularly young ones, to develop those ideas and push them to their limits. They gave their papers a sense of direction. Neither of their successors conveyed a comparable world-view. They have also departed.

The Daily Telegraph now has an acting editor, John Bryant, an amiable technician who produces a competent paper, but one that lacks distinction. The proverbial Martian, flicking through it, would know it was conservative (small "c"), but would get no sense of urgent ideas or vigorous debate. With fewer comment pages than its rivals, it rarely says anything original or surprising.

Lawson's Sunday Telegraph was at the heart of right-wing thinking. He was replaced by Sarah Sands who, presumably with management support, made it jollier and girlier - though she also signed Niall Ferguson, a Harvard professor who is almost the only right-wing columnist now worth reading. After less than nine months, Sands was fired. Her replacement, Patience Wheatcroft, the former Times business editor, is a serious Tory. The transformation is instant. Gone are the light headline typefaces that Sands favoured, the italicised standfirsts, the ragged setting on news stories. Gone, too, are the readers' letters on spanking which I have highlighted previously, and any frivolity in the news pages. But Wheatcroft's experience may be too narrow to revive the paper intellectually.

Then there is the Spectator, which Moore and Lawson successively edited in its heyday. This is also changed utterly, with the replacement of Boris Johnson as editor by the Sunday Telegraph columnist Matthew d'Ancona. He is clever and thoughtful but a pinkish Tory who has recently devoted many words to defending his friend Tessa Jowell. D'Ancona's first move was to introduce a feature, "Deep Thought", which is possibly modelled on the New Statesman essays. Who kicks off this exciting foray into right-wing philosophy? One of those clever young men of whom the Telegraph papers once seemed to have an unending supply? No, not even Dominic Lawson, but his 74-year-old father, the ex-chancellor Nigel Lawson, who writes 3,000 words on global warming that contain not a single new insight, still less a witticism.

Perhaps most significant is the departure, not only from the Spectator, but from all Telegraph papers, of the Canadian Mark Steyn, the craziest neo-con cheerleader of all. Steyn, who gleefully predicted that we Europeans would shortly be overrun by Koran-wielding Muslims, could be offensive, even racist. But his joyous, uninhibited articles represented a school of thought that believed it was running with the tide of history and could therefore say what the hell it liked. The first sign of a political philosophy that has lost confidence is that it suppresses its more extreme and less respectable voices. Instead of pushing at the boundaries of acceptable thought, it seeks the safety of the centre ground.

The right has had 30 years in the sun (which were only peripherally connected to which parties held office). It's over, and the right knows it.

After the death of John Profumo, I feel very old. The great 1960s Tory scandal, every detail of which was imprinted on my teenage brain at the time, needs to be explained afresh to newspaper readers. Nobody can now be expected to understand why it was bad for Profumo, the war minister, to sleep with a woman who also slept with a Russian. So the Sun invites us to imagine Gordon Brown having an affair with Abi Titmuss while she sleeps with Osama Bin Laden's London representative; Jasper Gerard, in the Sunday Times, proposes "Jack Straw bedding Jordan while she slept with half the terrorists of Arabia"; and Matthew Parris in the Times suggests John Reid using a prostitute who also services an Arab agent. At the NS, we try to envisage John Pilger in bed with Kimberly Quinn, and then draw a veil over our imaginations.