Blair fights to take Iraq off political agenda

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Tony Blair was at Chequers yesterday preparing for a final gruelling week designed to switch the political agenda back to domestic issues before heading for his summer break at Sir Cliff Richard's holiday home in Barbados.

Tony Blair was at Chequers yesterday preparing for a final gruelling week designed to switch the political agenda back to domestic issues before heading for his summer break at Sir Cliff Richard's holiday home in Barbados.

But his efforts may well be frustrated by the biggest political event of the week, tomorrow's debate on Iraq. Michael Howard, the Tory leader, will concentrate on the Butler inquiry findings, but will widen his attack to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners and the alleged lack of preparedness for the reconstruction of the country.

Mr Blair will insist again that the Butler team cleared him of acting in bad faith and will repeat his argument that, for all its problems, a post-Saddam Iraq is better than what went before. Party managers are desperate to draw a line under the divisive subject and will therefore be scrutinising backbench contributions to see if they have succeeded.

Today he and David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, launch the Government's five-year plan for tackling crime and disorder, an issue which has become Downing Street's number one concern. Confirming the feedback from Labour MPs in inner-city constituencies, it dominated the campaign in the Birmingham Hodge Hill by-election, in which the party's large majority was slashed to just 460.

The Department for Transport releases its five-year plan tomorrow amid fears that discontent among commuters could cost Labour a clutch of marginal seats in the South-east.

Wednesday has been pencilled in as the most likely day for a reshuffle in which Andrew Smith and Paul Boateng, two allies of Gordon Brown, are seen as vulnerable. Ian McCartney could be replaced as party chairman amid accusations that he has made little impact. A flurry of ministerial comings and goings would help limit the publicity for spending cuts to the Armed Forces due to be announced on Wednesday.

It is also the 10th anniversary of Mr Blair's election as Labour leader and could be viewed as an opportunity to demonstrate a renewed strength of purpose.

On Thursday, when the Commons rises for the summer recess, Mr Blair is expected to call his monthly Downing Street press conference, the first opportunity since the Butler report was published that journalists have had to put detailed questions to him about what he knew about intelligence reports on Iraq.

The following day, he speaks to Labour's National Policy Forum in Warwick, where he is likely to give some indication of what will be in the party's manifesto for the general election expected next year. The Prime Minister is preparing a robust defence of his determination to extend choice in schools and hospitals in the face of opposition from some Labour MPs and union leaders.

The week brings to a close a traumatic parliamentary year for Mr Blair, during which speculation gathered over how long he would remain in Downing Street and which was dogged by tensions with Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, over the succession to No 10.

The Observer reported yesterday that the Prime Minister had told friends that he had made no deal with Mr Brown over stepping down. It said he was talking about "his third term being a meaningful third term", suggesting he intends to serve for several more years if Labour wins the next election.

However, the problems the Prime Minister has to overcome were underlined by two polls yesterday.

An NOP survey for the Sunday Express found 55 per cent of voters trusted him less than they did before the Butler report was published and 44 per cent thought he should resign over Iraq. A YouGov poll for The Sunday Times showed 57 per cent would not trust Mr Blair to take Britain to war again.

Tomorrow's debate on Iraq will bring the parliamentary year to a dramatic end. Labour backbenchers, demoralised by the Government's failure to kill off the controversy, will be desperate for Tony Blair to help them shake off the issue.

The Tories, reeling from two by-election third places last week, will be willing Michael Howard to produce a knock-out blow.

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, also has to prove that he is more than a supporting actor in the grand drama.

There is not expected to be a vote on a substantive motion at the end of the debate.

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