Politics is going to get a lot more vicious yet

What we're seeing in the US, and here, is a dramatic sharpening of the party divide on personality lines
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If Michael Howard - or Charles Kennedy - want to learn a few lessons on how to cope with a triumphant Prime Minister and how to pursue the Iraqi issue they could do no better than look across the Atlantic.

There, despite every initial calculation, the reasons for going to war, have become a major issue in the political campaigning. That could have its own reverberations over here as the accusations and information grow in the US just as Tony Blair is trying to quieten down the whole debate post-Hutton in Britain. It is also serving to sharpen the divisions between the Labour Party in Britain and the Democrats in the US, forcing Blair more and more into an association with Bush on party divisions.

But the really interesting point is that the beneficiary of the anti-Bush, anti-war mood in the US among the Democrat contenders at the moment is not Howard Dean, who staked his reputation on opposition to the invasion of Iraq from the start, but John Kerry, who was as enthusiastically pro-invasion as Iain Duncan Smith was on this side of the Atlantic.

Just why this should be, and why Howard Dean should fall so quickly from being the odds-on favourite to be Democrat nominee for the President to a limping also-ran, is something of a puzzle. It may be to do with a voter preference for experience and authority as the election draws closer. It may be that Democrats want a more open race before finally settling on a choice. In which case he may return to the fore in the primaries in the southern states next week.

But it may be that what we are seeing in America, and will see here, is a dramatic sharpening of the party divide on personality lines. What the Democrats want is not a candidate who best expresses their views on education, taxes or even the war but one who has a real chance of beating the incumbent President. The aim is not so much to pursue a different policy as to get Bush out.

That would certainly accord with a deeper trend developing in politics - its depoliticisation. As party loyalties have declined and voters have taken less and less interest in policy debates, so the public has grown to regard it more and more as a sporting event. The excitement is in the election, and who can win.

Politicians tend to blame the press for this, just as the press tends to blame the professionalisation of politics which has made everything into a process of opinion manipulation. But the end result is what we've seen in recent elections. As elections approach the voter takes an interest if it is a real race. As soon as it's over, the loser is simply cast aside as of no more interest. When the next race is due, then the voter takes an interest again, but from the point of view of whether the contender has a chance not what he has to say.

Howard Dean (or William Hague, or Iain Duncan Smith) arouse an interest in the initial stages because they are new and seem fresh. But, whatever they say, as soon as the public makes up its mind that the candidates are not up to making a contest, that is it. The poor politician is yesterday's story. If voters sense a candidate has a chance, then the punters pile in behind him or her with half an eye to making a contest of it.

Translate this into British terms and what do you have? The war has opened up an even more profound divide than in the US but it has also aroused an almost violent determination among those who opposed it and felt betrayed by Blair to want the Prime Minister out, in the same way that Democrats want to see Bush fall.

That doesn't bode well for politicians, and Lord Hutton, who dearly wish to restore a sense of respect for public office and to end the visceral attacks on ministers. The BBC wasn't responsible for the growing personalisation of attacks on the Prime Minister and his colleagues. He - just as Bush - was in the forefront of making politics into a video game of power.

Charles Kennedy is right that much of the public - especially women - don't like the cattiness and insults of party politicking. But then they're not especially interested in polite debate either. Come the fight, they want the fury. And the media are going to have to give it to them if they want to keep their ratings up.

It also suggests that Michael Howard has got his tactics wrong. The public is not going to view him as a contender because he is clever in Prime Minister's Questions or in parliamentary tactics over tuition fees. Nor, on the other hand, will it necessarily hold it against him that his party voted for war.

What many do want is someone who looks as if he can take on Tony Blair and win. For that they look for competence and judgement. Blair's greatest weakness is not really that people think he lied over the war, but that he got it wrong and won't own up. His judgement on this, as over top-up fees and even glorying over the fall of the BBC, looks flawed.

Michael Howard has taken a knock because he misjudged his attack on Blair over Hutton and misjudged the need to make a graceful retreat after. He (and for that matter, Kennedy) doesn't need to have different or better policies on university funding, taxation or health. He just needs to keep chipping away at Blair's reputation for competence and keep building up the sense that he and his team would manage things better. In other words, that he's a contender.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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