Whatever his faults, Tony Blair, the first leader in the century-old history of the Labour Party to secure two full terms in office, has proved an outstandingly talented politician. He has also been an outstandingly lucky one. The perverse response by the Conservatives to his landslide election victories was to pick two leaders who would have had the gravest difficulty winning an election against a vastly weaker opponent than he was.
In one short week that landscape has now changed, probably for good. Whatever tunes Labour now whistles to keep its spirits up about Michael Howard's negative image among large sections of the electorate, it knows, from Blair down, that the landscape has changed. The extraordinary comeback of a man whose political obituaries were confidently written several years ago cannot fail to mean, in the short term at the very least, pain for the governing party.
Howard is a more experienced - perhaps even better - lawyer than Blair; he is unlikely to miss whatever opportunities the Hutton report presents him with in the new year. He is economically literate, capable of embarrassing Blair in the event of the economic turndown the Government is hoping against hope won't happen. He will enjoy a honeymoon with a media bored with the easy ride the Government has had from everyone save itself.
The question already preoccupying ministerial minds is whether there can be long-term gain to offset the short-term pain. The standard response to the news that the Government will face some serious opposition is that it will become a better government. Indeed that is precisely one of the reasons that a revitalised opposition is in the national as well as the Conservative Party's interest.
The other argument, promoted within Labour's inner circles by figures such as Peter Mandelson, is that a better opposition can help to give definition to a government that might otherwise lack it. As Neil Kinnock's Labour Party became better at opposing Margaret Thatcher's government, her administration's sense of purpose became sharper and more cogently expressed.
There is a lot in both arguments. By performing better an opposition can't really fail to make it more likely that the Government will raise its game. The problem, however, is that the makings of definition have to be there in the first place. There was never much doubt about the Thatcher project: shrinking the state; freeing the market; curbing the unions; deregulating the City, and so on.
What survives of the Blair project is a good deal less easy to describe. All the less so as one central part of it, already shaky, has arguably been dealt a further blow by Howard's imminent coronation. The unity behind Howard has further eclipsed - at least for the foreseeable future - the pro-European wing of the Conservative party who looked to Kenneth Clarke, contracting yet further the space occupied by those who want Blair to fulfil his own desire to join the euro and play a leading role in the EU. All the less so, too, since economic stability - the unique achievement, for Labour, of the past six years - is under threat for the first time since 1997.
It is commonplace to put reform of the public services at the heart of the Blair agenda. And this is commendable as far as it goes. Unless there are demonstrable improvements in health, education and transport by the next election, there will be an immeasurable sense of disappointment from the electorate. Whether this constitutes a galvanising message for a supposedly radical government rather than merely a minimum condition of survival is more open to doubt. Especially since there is something in the argument most associated with Gordon Brown - namely that harping on about public service reform, as opposed to quietly getting on with it, risks undermining faith in the public services as much as enhancing it.
But there is an even bigger danger of misreading the meaning of Howard's accession. After two political leaders from the right, the Tory party has now opted for an able one, also of the right. (He didn't say last Thursday that he was going to lead from the centre; he said he was going to lead from Conservatism's centre). The temptationwill be to shift Labour, and therefore the whole political stage, to the right in response.
Instead, the Government needs to follow Thatcher by defining where it stands, and where the dividing lines are. And that means a consciously social democratic message which doesn't kowtow to the old Labour left but does address the true problems facing the country in a coherent way that no amount of Daily Mail-friendly headlines about noisy neighbours or acquitted villains can.
This may mean returning to some of the goals defined, however sketchily, before the 1997 election, including arming the population, including those in the most deprived regions, against the challenges of globalisation; a high-flown word which suddenly means something if your call centre job as been switched to Bangalore. It may mean paying much more attention not only to getting people into work, but to retraining them once they have got there. It may mean a truly radical approach to child care which would start to equalise the life chances of infants at the bottom of the social scale.
It may mean expanding some of the decent initiatives such as Sure Start and then shouting it from the rooftops. And it may mean being more open about what Brown has already achieved in terms of redistribution as a means to a more cohesive society. And most imminently it may mean producing a package on higher education to make it more, rather than less, likely that those with least advantages get the benefit of the best universities.
Howard's essentially neo-Thatcherite leadership of the Tory party does indeed present an opportunity as well as a threat. It is highly unlikely that the electorate will be ready for the moves towards dismantling the health service that his close lieutenant Liam Fox has already envisaged. Some of Howard's closest allies, such as Fox and Oliver Letwin, are very clever but not exactly masters of political judgement. It is unlikely that that the electorate will respond positively to the attempts he will make to raise the salience of Europe, just as William Hague did, by a campaign against the new EU treaty.
But this will be only the case if Labour is ready to be open about what it believes in. If, for example, it makes clear that the NHS is safe in its hands and that the alternative to engagement in Europe is a threat to prosperity and jobs. Labour will have to sharpen up its act. But it will also have to show that it has a programme which it believes in and is distinctively its own. At the moment it looks as if, in rugby terms, the Tories have become Samoa instead of Uruguay to Labour's England. But to make sure that Samoa doesn't snatch a surprise victory, Labour now needs to show courage as well as skill.Reuse content