Blair still failing to escape the dark clouds of war

Click to follow
Indy Politics

The slide into chaos in Iraq in the past week has again highlighted Tony Blair's inability to "move on" from the war, as he has urged his critics to do. The anniversary of the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue should have been an occasion for the Prime Minister to look back with pride. Instead, the Government maintained radio silence for much of the week. When Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, was finally interviewed by Radio 4 yesterday, he admitted that the problems were much worse than he could have imagined a year ago. "There is no doubt that the current situation is very serious and it is the most serious that we have faced," he said.

The slide into chaos in Iraq in the past week has again highlighted Tony Blair's inability to "move on" from the war, as he has urged his critics to do. The anniversary of the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue should have been an occasion for the Prime Minister to look back with pride. Instead, the Government maintained radio silence for much of the week. When Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, was finally interviewed by Radio 4 yesterday, he admitted that the problems were much worse than he could have imagined a year ago. "There is no doubt that the current situation is very serious and it is the most serious that we have faced," he said.

Mr Blair joined his family for a short break in Bermuda on Thursday but could not escape his critics. When he arrived at the airport, he was heckled by anti-war protesters.

The dark cloud of Iraq has rarely lifted from Mr Blair in the past year. Whenever domestic political issues broke through, it was not for long. Some aides now fear the cloud will hover ominously over him until after the next general election. As one adviser put it: "He knows he will not be able to draw a line under Iraq until he has won a fresh mandate. That's why he wants to call the election as soon as possible."

It would look like indecent haste to hold a general election before May next year, so there will be no early escape. There is another possible route: should, some Blair allies wonder, the Prime Minister say sorry because his case for war rested so heavily on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that do not exist?

The inquiry chaired by Lord Butler of Brockwell into the pre-war intelligence, which reports in July, could provide a platform for Mr Blair to admit that he unwittingly took Britain to war on flawed information. But "sorry" has proved one of the hardest words for Mr Blair to say. True, he apologised for the ill-fated Millennium Dome project and admitted he was wrong about Ken Livingstone. For now, Mr Blair does not look like a man ready to say sorry about Iraq. The worrying events of the past week have not shaken his belief that intervention in Iraq was "the right thing to do" and that history will prove it so.

There is concern in Downing Street that the increasingly awful television pictures from Iraq project an image of a whole country in chaos. Officials are anxious to stress that the problems are confined to relatively small pockets, that the vast bulk of Iraq is not out of control.

After their White House talks next Friday, Mr Blair and President George Bush will tell the world that they are not wavering. Their common script is already being honed. The 30 June deadline for handing over power to the Iraqi interim government will not be moved. A "small minority of insurgents" must not derail the moves to democracy. Those who look for a sign of weakness must be met with a show of unwavering strength and determination.

"This is the critical moment and it is not the time to blink," one minister said. The hope in Downing Street is that the insurgents are making one last stand before 30 June, and that the path will become easier once the interim government is in place.

But the road is strewn with obstacles. Mr Blair and President Bush will agree on the need for a fresh United Nations resolution enhancing the UN's role in Iraq. But persuading the UN it is safe enough to return may prove harder.

Then there is the question of American tactics on the ground. It is not only anti-war Labour MPs who believe the US has contributed to the current problems by being heavy-handed. Some Blairites also want the Prime Minister to remind the President about the relative success of the "softly, softly" approach of the British troops in Iraq.

Mr Blair will disappoint the critics. There will be no lectures for President Bush, in public or private. But Mr Straw nodded in the critics' direction yesterday, stressing the need for a "twin-track" political and military approach. "The lid of the pressure cooker has come off, and some of the tensions and pressures which were there [under Saddam] and would have come out in any event, have to a degree been directed against the coalition," he said.

The Prime Minister will try to show he has some influence over the President by pressing for a new push on the Middle East peace process. But progress will depend more on the visit to Washington earlier in the week by Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister.

The parallel between Iraq and Vietnam is easy to make but ministers insist it is wide of the mark. Interestingly, most anti-war MPs do not want British troops pulled out; they want us to finish the job. Mr Blair is convinced the current problems will be overcome provided the coalition stands firm.

Yesterday's demand by Labour MPs for a recall of Parliament to discuss the crisis reminds us how Iraq still defines British politics. Not only has the issue eclipsed domestic issues, it has made them much more difficult terrain for Mr Blair. His trust ratings have gone through the floor; his advisers fret that they will never recover. Many in his party - and the country - have not forgiven him. His dream of resolving Britain's half-in, half-out relationship with Europe is in tatters. Relations with France have not fully recovered from his scapegoating of President Chirac for "vetoing" a second UN resolution. His "trust problem" meant there was no question of calling a euro referendum.

Iraq was very much Mr Blair's war. The problems of "peace" are his too. And, however hard he tries to "move on," Iraq may well be what his premiership is most remembered for.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

Comments