How chief of staff used interview to turn up the heat on Blair

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When General Sir Richard Dannatt flopped down in the sofa in his private office at the Ministry of Defence, he knew precisely what he wanted to say.

The Chief of the General Staff - the head of Britain's armed forces - wanted to use an interview with Sarah Sands, of the Daily Mail, to put a rocket up the politicians who were making life hell for his beleaguered troops.

He had already won a successful behind-the-scenes battle for an increase in the pay of soldiers on active service abroad. As he sat down for the interview last Tuesday, the move was being announced by Gordon Brown and the Defence Secretary, Des Browne, a close friend of the Chancellor.

Complaints about the lack of decent pay while dying for their country had been a long running sore with the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sir Richard had taken over from the hard-bitten General Sir Mike Jackson determined to do something about pay for those on the frontline.

However, there was a more difficult issue to be faced and he was keen to address it as directly as he dared: the debilitating effect that asking the troops to fight too many wars with too few men and inadequate equipment was having on his army.

General Dannatt was determined that he was not going to be one of those commanders who played down so-called 'over-stretch' with his troops. However, in publicly voicing his anxieties about the damage it was doing to his Army, he spectacularly stepped over the line into the minefield of politics by challenging the role of the army in Iraq. Most damning of all, he said the presence of British troops in Iraq was 'exacerbating' the 'security problems'.

The Defence Secretary had approved the interview, but had received no advance warning of the explosive comments the Army's most senior figure intended to make. As the first edition of the Daily Mail dropped in Downing Street on Thursday evening, the Prime Minister's most senior officials were caught off-guard.

Mr Browne had already left Westminster for his Scottish constituency. David Hill, a trusted Labour party 'spin doctor' who was brought in to handle media relations when Alastair Campbell left Number Ten, had to field calls at 10pm from Sky and the BBC but was unsighted about the interview.

Tom Kelly, the Prime Minister's official spokesman, was at the golfing hotel at St Andrews, accompanying Tony Blair for his final round of negotiations with the Northern Ireland parties.

For several hours, Downing Street appeared caught in the headlights of a crisis with little idea how to respond. Faced with an unprecedented challenge to the Prime Minister's authority by Britain's most senior soldier on Iraq, no minister was put up to speak for the Government.

Mr Blair had been focused on Northern Ireland politics and had been conducting negotiations in one-to-one meetings with Gerry Adams and other Northern Ireland leaders. The lights were on beyond midnight as Mr Blair and his spokesman tried to find out precisely what the general had said, and assess the damage it had caused.

The White House was alarmed that once again the British were 'going wobbly' on them and there were reports they wanted to intervene, but were prevented from doing so by Downing Street. The Prime Minister's spokesman flatly denied there had been any contact from the White House yesterday, but the suspicions remained and the White House confirmed it had contacted Number Ten for 'clarification' .

An emergency media strategy was thrown together in the early hours of the morning. Des Browne hurriedly rang the General, who was ordered to 'clarify' his remarks in a round of early morning interviews. He did so, in uniform and closely shadowed by spin doctors, on the steps of the Ministry of Defence.

He qualified some of his remarks, saying that the violence was being exacerbated by the presence of foreign troops, but only in some areas of Iraq. Significantly, he refused to recant on the main thrust of his remarks.

Indeed, he went further in a BBC Radio 4 Today interview, saying: "I've got an Army to look after which is going to be successful in current operations. But I want an Army in five years' time and 10 years' time. Don't let's break it on this one. Let's keep an eye on time."

But in time for the morning shows in Washington, the General issued a more explicit statement insisting that British troops stood 'shoulder to shoulder with the Americans' and that they would 'see this through'. He added: "We don't do surrender, we don't pull down white flags." Those words were designed to placate Washington.

But the damage was done and his comments prompted renewed calls for a withdrawal of troops. Tory MP and military historian, Keith Simpson, said the General was motivated by "frustration". Mr Simpson, who has known Sir Richard for 30 years, added: "The fact that somebody as cautious and professional as this has done this I think is highly significant."

In choosing to unburden himself to Sands, the former editor of The Sunday Telegraph, General Dannatt had chosen with care. Ms Sandshas a son who is in training as an officer in the Army. The General also has a son who has gone through Sandhurst and has served in Iraq. The pair have intimate knowledge of the corrosive effect the ill-thought-out aftermath of the Iraq war is having on morale.

General Dannatt, as a committed Christian, also complained about the lack of moral or religious authority at home. "There is an element of the moral compass spinning," he said. Some ministers were left thinking Mr Blair's authority was spinning in the wind too.