Blair's troubles

Print edition : July 04, 2003

Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw outside 10 Downing Street in London. - RUSSELL BOYCE/REUTERS

THE basis of much of Prime Minister Tony Blair's appeal for the British electorate prior to his first election victory in 1997 was his ability to project a clean, trustworthy image in contrast to the sleaze-ridden Tory administration of the then Premier John Major.

At the very first hint of his premiership being in disrepute, when he faced the charge that he had unduly postponed a ban on tobacco advertising in return for a substantial donation to Labour Party funds, Blair made a calculated appeal to the British people above the head of his interviewer that it was unthinkable that he should do such a thing because he was "a pretty regular sort of guy". That image lasted a surprisingly long time, not least because it was carefully nurtured. However, the image is beginning to look tarnished as Blair now struggles to ward off the mounting criticism of his handling and presentation of intelligence material pertaining to Iraq's possession, or not, as may be the case, of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Throughout the build-up to the Iraq war there was a consistent majority sentiment, expressed in opinion polls in the United Kingdom, against military action in Iraq without the sanction of the United Nations (U.N.). This majority was quite substantial among Labour supporters, and Blair's own Parliamentary Labour Party reflected that view.

Clare Short, Blair's Minister for International Development, who subsequently resigned after the war, claims that Blair had decided as early as summer 2002 that the Bush administration would go to war in any case, and that therefore Blair needed a strategy to get the reluctant British public in line for supporting what could well be, and eventually was, unilateral action by the United States.

Although the favoured route was to persuade the U.N. to sanction the war, the Blair team was eventually proven to be over-optimistic in thinking that it would be able to persuade Russia, Germany and, most importantly, France to back the so-called "second resolution" at the U.N. Blair and his loyal Foreign Secretary Jack Straw certainly made a major miscalculation by assuming that French President Jacques Chirac was simply holding out only as a cosmetic exercise in order to increase his bargaining position in post-war settlement.

Blair was faced with the daunting problem of getting the British public and indeed his own party behind a policy fashioned entirely by the pro-war lobby in Washington and decided to play the card that Saddam Hussein was a direct threat not only to his own people, not only to his neighbours, but to the wider world, and quite explicitly to the U.K.

Subsequently, in a speech to the House of Commons, Blair electrified the debate by claiming that Saddam Hussein had WMD capable of being activated "within 48 hours".

At a time when it was becoming clear that a U.S. attack would not get the seal of U.N. approval, Blair's "proof" of Saddam Hussein's threat was the straw several Labour Members of Parliament grasped as they were on the verge of sinking under the weight of apprehensions and doubts about their own supporters and members.

Blair managed a majority not only in the House, where he had the support of the Tory Opposition, but in his own party, which had not looked certain right up to the debate.

On the eve of the vote he survived a late and damaging scare with the resignation of the Leader of the House and former Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook. Cook's subsequent forensic dismemberment of Blair's case in the House and later in the press threatens to continue; Cook has staked much of what was once his own very promising career on Blair's eventual fall.

More significant though was the withdrawal of a threatened resignation by Clare Short. The outspoken, passionate and frequently muddled, Clare Short has revelled in her role as the conscience of the Labour Party and has a wide following. There can be little doubt that if she had joined Cook in resigning before the crucial vote, Blair could well have failed to take the party with him.

In line with her character and record, Short resigned after the war, making a swinging attack on Blair not only over the war but on the whole style and substance of his regime. Short seemed sublimely ignorant that each dart she aimed at Blair undermined her own integrity.

The shooting war is over and no WMD have been found. U.N. Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix is now claiming that the facts have been doctored.

Rather than play the triumphant hero, Blair must wait for his laurels until his case that Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat is proved. The U.S. administration has no such pressure; indeed Blair's own case has been rudely undermined by U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who blithely announced that Iraq's WMD may never be found.

Blair now stands accused of doctoring secret service intelligence about Saddam Hussein's destructive capabilities. His infamous "48 hours" warning has been challenged by leaks from intelligence sources. Unfortunately for Blair, the annual report of the all-party Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee concludes that the government should not issue statements based on intelligence sources without the same intelligence sources' approval.

At the heart of this particular row stands the controversial figure of Blair's friend and senior press adviser Alistair Campbell. Campbell, it is alleged, ordered the reports on Saddam Hussein's weapons to be "sexed up", a significant choice of words from a former tabloid journalist.

The careful, conditional sentences of the secret services - "might", "perhaps", "may" - were turned into positives by Number Ten's press team. The secret services are said to be furious and have extracted a grudging half-apology from Campbell.

The doubters of Tony Blair's sincerity are growing daily and now his much-vaunted skills to manipulate news (known in the current jargon as "spin") might have found their ultimate match in the heirs to Kim Philby and John le Carre.

Michael Hindley was a Labour Party member of European Parliament from 1984 to 1999.

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