No hiding place: Blair melts under the heat of Iraq

Iraq may not lose Labour the election but it has wounded a Prime Minister looking forward to a triumphant third term. Andy McSmith and Francis Elliott report on the damage done to the party's fortunes in the week the war bit back
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Seeing an exhausted Tony Blair sweating under the television lights as he faced a hostile studio audience on BBC1's Question Time last Thursday must have made many people wonder why on earth the Prime Minister would want to carry on. Just as the election campaign had seemed to settle down, as the country got the measure of Michael Howard and decided they did not want him as head of government, the Iraq war suddenly blew up in his face.

Seeing an exhausted Tony Blair sweating under the television lights as he faced a hostile studio audience on BBC1's Question Time last Thursday must have made many people wonder why on earth the Prime Minister would want to carry on. Just as the election campaign had seemed to settle down, as the country got the measure of Michael Howard and decided they did not want him as head of government, the Iraq war suddenly blew up in his face.

It is the question that refuses to go away, which prompted one of the readers who have submitted questions to the Prime Minister through this newspaper to ask the obvious: why did he not resign last year when so many people, including his putative successor Gordon Brown, expected him to?

There is one obvious answer. If the opinion polls are accurate, Mr Blair is about to emulate the extraordinary feat that Margaret Thatcher pulled off 18 years ago, when she won a convincing Commons majority for the third election in a row - something no Labour leader has ever achieved.

Mr Blair also has in mind to beat Baroness Thatcher's stretch of 11 years and six months in office, a 20th-century record. That, he believes, will give him long enough to put bad memories of the Iraq war behind him, so that he can be remembered as the man who brought economic and social stability to the UK, improved its standing in the world, and made its public services more efficient.

What the Prime Minister categorically did not need was to have Lord Goldsmith's advice on the legality of the Iraq war thrust to the top of the national news agenda in the last full week of the campaign. Today's leak to The Independent on Sunday of the original Foreign Office advice on the war's legality is no help to Labour either.

It is not that revelations like these will cause Labour supporters to switch to the Tories, especially since Mr Howard announced last week that he would have supported the war even if he had known that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. But a day spent mired in the the Iraq controversy is a day lost for Labour, who want voters' mind concentrated on the government's economic record.

The timing of the first leak, to The Mail on Sunday a week ago, followed by a more detailed leak to television broadcasters on Wednesday, was so well timed to cause maximum damage that party officials are in no doubt that the leak came from the Conservatives. That is flatly denied at Tory campaign headquarters.

Having the Iraq war back at the top of the national news served to jog people's memories about all those suspicions that Mr Blair's word could not be trusted. It was the last thing Labour needed during an election, and yet, when the storm had passed, advisers at Labour's campaign headquarters reflected - with relief - that it could have been worse.

At last on Friday morning, strategists sifting the overnight polling data found a glimmer of good news. As Mr Blair travelled to South Wales for yet another campaign visit, he was told voters were beginning to listen to his message, which was summarised by one strategist as "I know you disagree with me but I look the decision I believed right". For the first time since the advice story broke, the trust figures were moving in the right direction.

Labour was also pleased that broadcasters, deprived of new pictures to illustrate the Iraq story, seemed more willing to move off the story. "For a couple of days our transmission lines were down; now they are beginning to get back up," one senior campaign source said yesterday. "We were expecting [Iraq] much earlier in the campaign. When it didn't surface I think we took our eye off the ball a bit."

Having the campaign come alive, even at the expense of making Mr Blair look uncomfortable, could have some hidden benefits for the Labour Party, whose strategists resolutely refuse to believe opinion polls that tell them they are gliding to painless victory.

In this strange campaign, both the main contestants are claiming to be the underdogs. After Mr Howard's surprising comment, in which he compared the Tories to a football team that was 2-0 down but still full of fighting spirit, there has been a week in which Labour has covered the nation's billboards with posters warning that Mr Howard might be Prime Minister by Friday.

Yet all the opinion polls say that this cannot happen, including the latest for the IoS, which puts Labour a comfortable eight points ahead - easily enough to keep them in government until 2009. Labour analysts say that polls are downright misleading, because they assume that voting patterns are uniform throughout the land, when they should concentrate on what is happening in the crucial marginal seats.

To explain why, one of Mr Blair's leading advisers pointed with grudging respect to a talk given more than three years ago right across the far side of the world, to the National Press Club of Australia. The speaker was Lynton Crosby, who had just piloted John Howard's Liberal Party to an unexpected victory in the Australian general election, and is now trying to do the same for another man named Howard.

Mr Crosby pointed out to his Australian audience: "Many media commentators do not see much of the real campaign these days. It does not take place on the TV, on the radio or even in newspapers. It is the local activity on the ground that really counts - letters to voters, postcards, newsletters, telephone canvassing, door-knocking ..."

Politics has changed a great deal from the heady days of 1997, when the Labour Party revelled in its unfamiliar status as the clear leader in a one-sided campaign, and positively encouraged stories about the slick professionalism of its campaign's organisers, such as Mr Blair's press secretary Alastair Campbell, or the former spin doctor Peter Mandelson.

Mr Mandelson is said to be chomping at the bit over in Brussels, having to watch from afar the first general election in 20 years in which he has not been personally involved. He paid a visit last week, however, and apparently took note of the nervous atmosphere at party headquarters. "This is the first time a lot of these people have been under real pressure," he is said to have remarked last week.

One cause of nervousness is the huge sums the Conservative Party has been spending. In the first two weeks of the campaign, from 4-18 April, the Tories received just under £1.7m in large donations from wealthy supporters. This does not include the small sums sent by well-wishers, or the large amounts they are alleged to have been given in the form of anonymous loans, which do not have to be declared. The Electoral Commission has said they will investigate the loans. In the same period, the Labour Party received £970,000 in donations that have to be declared.

The Tories have been carefully channelling their money to where it can be expected to have the most effect: in a few dozen Labour-held marginals. Here, local newspapers have had an agreeable boost to their advertising revenue, as the Tories fill these local newspapers with advertisements suggesting - for example - that high council tax bills and the presence in the area of asylum applicants are reasons to vote Tory locally. Local billboards are full of Tory posters bearing similar messages.

Eight years ago, Labour pulled off the feat of concentrating its vote where it was most needed, in vulnerable Tory marginals, so gaining a disproportionate number of Commons seats. The risk they face is that the Conservatives will perform a similar feat, picking up a large number of extra seats without greatly increasing their portion of the overall vote nationwide. One calculation is that fewer than 600,000 votes lost by Labour in 158 key seats would mean that Mr Howard becomes Prime Minister on Friday.

So, to quote a much-used political cliché, how did the week's revelations go down in the Dog and Duck? In search of the answer, the IoS went to the centre of Rugby, a Midlands town that is an important political battleground. Rugby and Kenilworth constituency is Labour's 25th most marginal seat, which means that the Conservatives ought to be able to take it comfortably if they are serious about dislodging Tony Blair from Downing Street.

The bad news for the Prime Minister is that people there think that Iraq is important, though the slightly better news is that it may not change the way they vote. Certainly the Goldsmith revelations do not seem to have shifted opinions.

Tim Shaw, a teacher, described publication of Lord Goldsmith's advice as "just sifting over cold ash".

Julie Dodd, who has lived in Long Lawford, just outside Rugby, all her life, probably spoke the sad truth when she said: "Most people are so sick of the election that they're not interested any more. If there was another party, I'd be voting for them. Tony Blair didn't tell us the truth, but then none of them tell us the truth."

THE IRAQ FACTOR

LABOUR MPs

Geraldine Smith, MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale

If I'd had all the information that is now public I would have made a different decision. I didn't vote for regime change. I thought there was an imminent threat ... and I reluctantly voted for war.

Clive Betts, MP for Sheffield Attercliffe

I wish we had got the second UN resolution. If we had known ...there were no weapons of mass destruction the Government wouldn't have proposed the motion. We wouldn't have been asked to support it.

Paul Stinchcombe, MP for Wellingborough

The US was going to war anyway and I thought it was better if we were involved and they didn't go alone. George Bush basically used Tony Blair as a fig leaf. I wonder if it might have been better to isolate Bush instead. I don't know.

Nick Palmer, MP for Broxtowe

I wasn't sure then and I'm not sure now. I was worried about the impact on international institutions. I saw it as a war to remove a likely threat. If we hadn't done anything, in two years' time we could have been looking at Tel Aviv in ruins.

David Watts, MP for St Helens North

Those who were opposed to the war aren't going to change their minds. I don't believe Tony lied. He may have interpreted the facts in the way he wanted to, but everyone does that.

Anonymous MP

I would not have voted in the way I did if I had known. I assumed the intelligence was very detailed in the way Tony Blair indicated. I believed this was a major threat. If people had known all the caveats of Goldsmith it would have been very different.

THE LAWYERS

Phil Shiner, human rights lawyer of the year for representing Iraqi casualties of the war

Lord Goldsmith's opinion is extraordinary. It shows the Government was anguishing over the legality of the use of force.

Guy Goodwin-Gill QC, of All Souls College, Oxford

There was absolutely nothing in the original UN authorisations which aimed at the removal of Saddam Hussein. There's a whole chapter of measures against Iraq, not one of which authorises the removal of Saddam Hussein.

Michael Mansfield QC

Let's have the whole history of Goldsmith's advice. Was the Cabinet made aware of the full opinion? If he didn't take them through the full advice, there has to be an explanation or resignation by Goldsmith.

Anthony Scrivener QC

What is not satisfactory is the statement he made to Parliament. He looks like the chap who has bowed to the opinions of his client and that would be a very bad thing for an Attorney General.

Stephen Irwin QC, past chairman of the Bar Council

Whether you agree with the opinion or not, the full written opinion was a very careful, well researched and thoughtful approach to the problem.

Professor Vaughan Lowe, Chichele Professor of International Law at All Souls College, Oxford

It appears the Attorney General was not closely involved in the drafting of resolution 1441. He should have been at the heart of internal UK decision-making.

Interviews conducted by Karen Hall

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