Ambush: How one interview blew apart Blair's disastrous foreign policy

The General was no innocent abroad. His comments were born of frustration at the Prime Minister's failure to stick to an agreed timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. By Francis Elliott
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Indy Politics

For a man supposedly so unversed in the ways of the media, General Sir Richard Dannatt had strong views about how he wanted to conduct his first proper newspaper interview in his new job.

Despite being the incoming Chief of the General Staff and head of the armed forces, Sir Richard had, like all soldiers, to ask for permission.

But when he raised the possibility of speaking to the Daily Mail, the Ministry of Defence press office became jittery. Wouldn't he prefer to speak to a newspaper less opposed to government foreign policy?

After several weeks of haggling, Sir Richard raised the matter directly with Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Defence. Put on the spot, Mr Browne reluctantly agreed to his request, warning the general to be on his guard.

So it was that Sir Richard came to give an extraordinary 90-minute interview to Sarah Sands. Whatever else the interview was, it was not guarded.

He spoke about how the presence of British troops in Iraq was making the situation there worse and called for a clear commitment to an exit strategy from the country.

The general suggested it had been a "naive hope" that it was possible to install a liberal democracy in Iraq and said that we should now be aiming for a "lower ambition".

Most damaging of all, he said that the Iraq operation "exacerbates" the "difficulties we are experiencing around the world" - a direct contradiction of Tony Blair's claim that the UK would have been targeted whatever had happened with Saddam Hussein.

This weekend, Downing Street and the MoD are seeking to portray Sir Richard as an innocent among rogues, a plain-speaking soldier who was misrepresented by an unscrupulous tabloid.

The truth, according to those who know both Sir Richard and Mr Browne well, is rather different. Frustrated at the Prime Minister's failure to stick to a timetable of withdrawal from Iraq, military chiefs decided to fire a warning shot in public.

"I'm quite convinced that what he was doing was part of a co-ordinated attempt to tell the emperor he has no clothes," said one former colleague. "I'm not saying Des authorised it but I'd bet he doesn't disagree with much of what he said."

Other well-placed figures suggest that the interview had been a genuine attempt by the incoming head of the armed forces to reconnect the Army with a public sickened by years of government spin.

Whatever the truth, once Sir Richard had given his interview it was immediately clear that he had put himself beyond political protection.

On Thursday night as the presses began to roll, the Chief of the General Staff, at that time in Cornwall, was required to attend a phone conference with Mr Browne, who was in Scotland, and senior media advisers in London.

Sir Richard agreed that he had used all the words ascribed to him, but complained that the newspaper had left out the "context" of his remarks. Mr Browne said that he would have to appear in the media the next day to repair the damage, but the head of the armed forces said that he himself should face the cameras.

As Sir Richard was travelling overnight back to London, Washington was waking up to his words. The MoD flatly deny that the Pentagon was furious or that it tried to reprimand the general directly. It is clear, however, that the MoD and the US Department of Defense agreed a media strategy that sought to agree with as much of what Sir Richard had said as they could, while ignoring the rest.

This strategy was employed by Mr Blair on Friday to great effect, when he said that he agreed with "every word" of Sir Richard's broadcast remarks. The omission of prime ministerial approval for those comments made in the Daily Mail but not repeated the next day on radio or television was obvious - and meant to be so.

Senior MoD figures dismiss out of hand suggestions that Sir Richard is about to sacked. They admit his remarks have been damaging - particularly those suggesting that the situation in Iraq is stoking anti-British sentiment around the world - but say they show only a lack of political polish, not a fundamental rift.

As the smoke clears from the battlefield it is clear that Sir Richard is still standing despite having strained to breaking point the constitutional convention that the Army serves the politicians.

Mr Blair, powerless to sack him, forced, even, to agree with him, may wonder whether he can really carry on until next summer if even the Army has deserted him.

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