Revealed: the winners and losers from an audit of the Balkan war

The cruel truth is that no one can remember a thing the Tory leader has said about the conflict
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The Independent Culture
TONY BLAIR has just dismantled one of the few remaining Tory weapons against New Labour - the accusation that it is too consensual to be any good in a real conflict. Just before the last election, a senior Tory said to me gravely, "But can you imagine him as Prime Minister if Britain goes to war? He'd be a disaster: a lightweight ready to cave in as soon as things get tough."

It was a last desperate throw, but one which encapsulated the view of Mr Blair as a fair-weather politician, adept enough in sunny climes but too light to withstand a storm. The Second Gulf War was too brief and inconclusive and Britain's role so subsidiary that for all the talk of Blair the Hawk, the spat with Saddam did not seal his reputation as a war leader.

Kosovo has achieved that. No longer can Mr Blair be accused of being merely a skilled exploiter of the political seesaw, anxious to be all things to all men. Indeed, the nub of criticism from left and right was that his determination to see the saw through whatever the odds meant that he was failing to act with enough tactical prudence and letting his emotions rule over caution.

Another way to put it is that he chose a strong moral stance and stuck with it, even though some of his European partners were decidedly shaky in the last weeks and Washington's resistance to increasing the risk factor for its own side made the outcome less certain than it should have been. Mr Blair turns out to be rather well suited to fronting a war. It brings out the stubborn, zealous and unbending streak which he developed in dealing with his own party. Far from being concerned about pleasing everybody, he evidently did not mind becoming isolated from less convinced European leaders. For all the positive rhetoric which marked his dealings with the EU, he is perfectly happy not to be part of the Continental mainstream when he is sure of his own cause.

Even now that the sheer relief has unleashed some premature triumphalism among the odd minister or official, the Prime Minister has been a model of caution and - to use a word far too rarely suited to the activities of politicians - dignity. Most importantly, in terms of the workings of the settlement, he continues to rule out the drift towards de facto partitioning of the province.

The main consequence of this at home is an increased dependence of New Labour on the figure and competence of Mr Blair. Some practitioners of Westminster's most devious board game, "who's up, who's down, who's in, who's out" assert that Gordon Brown has had a bad war. He hasn't. He has had no war at all. The Chancellor attended throughout to Any Other Business competently and presided over a successful result in the elections for the Scottish Parliament.

But war changes everything. It commands the full attention of the participants, it drains efforts from other areas. "Behind us," wrote Bertolt Brecht, returning to Germany after his exile from the Third Reich, "lie the exertions of the mountain. Ahead of us lie the exertions of the plain." It is to the exertions of normal administration which Mr Blair must now bend his attention. The wild pace of legislation and promises of change set in the first months after the election are making the government pant a little. The Asylum and Immigration Bill is about to rear its head, alienating many natural Labour supporters. Lords reform is stuck in a ditch, welfare reform needs more shape and context. On GM foods, the government has lost the plot madly, as the overwhelming public approval for the Prince of Wales's intervention demonstrated.

Most seriously, the Ulster peace process has never looked more endangered. It missed the steadying influence of both Mr Blair and his Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, who was diverted from the day-to-day business of overseeing dealings with the Republicans and Unionists to overseeing links with Nato strategists. The response to Sinn Fein's intransigence over decommissioning has been to switch pressure to the Unionists - a tactic for which Mo Mowlam shows instinctive preference. But this may prove short-sighted. Mr Blair needs to rebuild bridges with David Trimble, the main Unionist leader, whose survival at the head of a difficult party represents London's best hope of progress. There is not much time left to save the prospect of peace.

For the Tory leader, the audit of war is the opposite of Mr Blair's. The cruel truth is that no-one can remember a single thing that William Hague has said about the conflict. As in the aftermath of the Princess of Wales's death, he has exhibited a bad weakness in a party leader: the inability to find something succinct to say when the occasion demands it. Kosovo also exposed a number of deep contradictions in the Conservative approach to Nato after the Cold War. This is the party which is proudly pro-defence but not sure about Kosovo, pro-Alliance for as long as the Alliance is actually at war, pro-American except when it doesn't like the President of the moment. The lasting impression is that in international affairs as well as at home the Tory Party has become an opportunistic and rootless entity which does not know what it believes.

One spectator watching all this attentively is the Hawk-in-exile, Michael Portillo. On Breakfast With Frost yesterday Mr Blair did not rule out rumours that he would be prepared to back an American bid to make Mr Portillo the next Nato general-secretary. That's putting it mildly. Blairites are often secret admirers of Mr Portillo, although it is the kind of love that dare not speak its name. Being admired by New Labour is, however, a risky position for a senior Tory to find himself in. One thinks of Debra Winger seducing a string of lovers in The Kiss of the Spider Woman, only to murder them afterwards.

The desire to make love to influential Conservatives inflames the Government. Be they Chris Patten or Ken Clarke on the left or Mr Portillo on the right, it believes that co-opting them is a polite but effective way of devouring Tory hopes of a better future. I imagine that the former defence secretary, although flattered by the seduction, will resist being co-opted into the Blairite harem and refuse the Nato job should it come his way. Taking it would rule him out of regaining a seat at the next election. Without this, his prospects of a return to frontline domestic politics, let alone a leadership bid, would be negligible.

Anyway, Mr Portillo is enjoying himself rebuilding a public profile as the Right-but-Repulsive Tory of yesteryear who is turning out in adversity to be quite nice after all. Nicer or not, he remains a man who once sought to appropriate the SAS slogan, "Who Dares Wins" in a speech to Tory Party conference. Not his best calculation as it turned out. But the warrior instinct remains intact. He has just seen Mr Blair dare and win against the odds abroad. Mr Portillo will not be willing to settle for anything less than a grasp for the laurels of Tory leadership at home.