They may look presidential, but in reality the power of the party leaders is limited

Howard will not be feeling mighty now as an ungrateful party gets awkward at the worst possible moment
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British political leaders seek to be presidential in a system that will not allow them to be so. Over the next few weeks, the media will present the general election largely as a battle between Tony Blair and Michael Howard. Between elections, the contest is often seen in similar terms with the ultimate test of a leader's virility being the degree of control he or she exerts over their party.

British political leaders seek to be presidential in a system that will not allow them to be so. Over the next few weeks, the media will present the general election largely as a battle between Tony Blair and Michael Howard. Between elections, the contest is often seen in similar terms with the ultimate test of a leader's virility being the degree of control he or she exerts over their party.

They respond to the test by proving how virile they are. Blair's most wounding soundbite was the one aimed at John Major in the mid 1990s: "I lead my party. You follow yours." By the end of that second sentence, Major had aged at least 10 years. Now it is Michael Howard who wants to lead his party, but parts of it will not follow meekly. Deselected candidates dare to protest. Local activists are tearfully distressed. Privately, MPs fume. When a party does not follow willingly, a leader is in deep trouble.

The presidential leaders are not the only ones who are confused. Recently, I spoke to an audience of well-informed Americans who were amazed to discover that only Labour supporters in Sedgefield would be voting directly for Blair at the election. Blair is a candidate only in his own constituency. In the build-up to the war against Iraq, Americans saw the Prime Minister standing "shoulder to shoulder" with President Bush at glamorous presidential-style news conferences.

Blair appeared as a presidential figure taking a reluctant country to war. In reality, Blair took Britain to war as a leader of a party that formed a government because it commanded a majority of seats in the Commons. He was in a wholly different constitutional position from President Bush.

Blair's subsequent problems stemmed from his complicated need to be presidential in the presence of a president. Blair is not an arrogant leader, but feels hemmed in more by the right-wing media and what he regards as the conservative wing of his New Labour coalition than from pressure within his own party. Indeed, he is most at ease politically when taking on his own party, cheered on by some newspapers and viewed with the private admiration of Conservative MPs.

There are few Conservative MPs expressing their admiration for Michael Howard in the light of his autocratic decision to deselect Howard Flight as a candidate. Imagine the frantic discussions between Howard and his advisers at the end of last week. In 1997, John Major looked weak when he was incapable of dealing with trouble- making candidates. Possibly Howard could turn an embarrassing story to his advantage by appearing ruthlessly in command. Major might have followed his party. Howard would lead it.

The views of one of Labour's most astute strategists are interesting. The strategist tells me that Howard's fatal mistake was his failure to get Flight's local party on board in advance of his presidential decree. It was the ineptitude of the execution rather than the execution itself that has amazed and delighted Labour's strategists, who also tend to view politics through the distorting prism of their own supposedly mighty leader.

Those who argue that Britain has in effect become a presidential system insist that the two main leaders can do more or less what they want. Blair will probably win a third election. Howard will prevail in his battle with Flight and the local party in Arundel. Both these observations are correct, but overlook a range of consequences that are still being played out for presidential figures functioning in a party-based system.

In Clare Short's illuminating and, in some ways, underestimated book on the war against Iraq, she argued that there were inadequate checks on prime ministerial power. That is not the case. The problem was a different one. The checks were there, but few dared to use them. The Cabinet could have stopped Blair from supporting President Bush if it had chosen. If Ms Short had resigned before the war, she might have swayed more Labour MPs to vote against the conflict. At least Blair gave MPs a chance to vote on the eve of the war. They could have stopped Britain from taking part if they had chosen to do so.

More widely, Blair continues to face the consequences of his presidential instincts. I get angry e-mails from former Labour supporters protesting that they "do not know how Blair got away with it". I cannot think of a leader less getting away with it. He has lost the trust of some voters. Local Labour parties are struggling to mount campaigns because of disillusionment from former members. The legality of the war is still being questioned.

Yesterday, I watched Blair taking detailed questions for two hours on health and crime on Sky TV. The programmes were first rate, with probing questions from an informed audience rather than over-the-top aggression, and conducted intelligently by presenters who did not seek to steal the limelight. Blair was at his best, listening, responding constructively, in command of his brief, putting the case for the higher investment in the NHS that would not have happened without a Labour government.

I watched with two former Labour members who declared at the end that they would still not be voting for their old party because of the war. As I argued last week, the only unresolved question in this election is the degree to which Labour voters protest over Iraq by staying at home or supporting the Liberal Democrats.

Howard will get away with his presidential decree in a pre-election period when leaders are at their strongest, but he will suffer later. Evidently, local Conservative associations are alarmed at the way their wishes can be swept aside by a panic-stricken leadership. Privately, some Conservative MPs are in despair. One well-known frontbencher tells me he contemplated resignation in defence of Flight on the grounds of "natural justice". Some Shadow Cabinet members are privately throwing darts. Howard's party stirs as he asserts his dominance.

In the same confused way that Britain expects European standards of public services and US levels of taxation, we want strong leaders who are not fully in control. Anyone in Downing Street will tell you they are nowhere near as imperious as perceived. If only they were, they add weakly. Similarly, Howard will not be feeling particularly mighty at the moment as an ungrateful party gets awkward at the worst possible moment.

The confused political mood is shifting once more. I predict that Blair's successor will respond to the trauma of Iraq by promising to publish any future advice on the legality of a conflict while strengthening the powers of the Cabinet, Parliament and party. Howard's potential successors are already planning to make much of the importance they attach to local Conservative associations. In the next Conservative leadership contest, the issues relating to the Howard Flight affair will loom large.

Blair's famously wounding soundbite against Major's weak leadership is starting to date. Soon aspirant leaders will almost dare to boast that they proudly follow their parties.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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