Tony's phoney-war cabinet

The Home Front: 2 Blair's War
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They haven't yet met, but they know who they are. And the PM is waging a quiet campaign to keep them marching to his tune.

The language has changed. There is a softer tone. Just a week ago the Prime Minister and the US President appeared as comrades in arms standing "shoulder-to- shoulder" ready for war. Now Tony Blair and George Bush seem more like churchmen, standing hand-in-hand, focused on unifying people of different faiths and avoiding a humanitarian crisis. On both sides of the Atlantic the mood has altered. Just as the shock of 11 September gave way to sorrow, and sorrow in turn to anger, now anger has given way to reason. The doves seem to be winning the argument.

In Washington, President Bush appears to be leaning towards the advice of Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Backed by the President's chief of staff, Andrew Card, and Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill, they are urging caution, warning Bush against going in too soon. They don't want war without international consent and cooperation. And they don't want US troops in Iraq.

Instead, they are using private meetings with the President and when possible, his wife, Laura, to restrain him. It is Osama bin Laden they want, not Saddam Hussein. They favour a global, diplomatic and military assault on the Taliban and other governments harbouring the terrorists, not an American war against Afghanistan.

But they are up against tough opposition. The hawks – Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, Gen Henry Shelton, CIA director George Tenet and Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz – are understood to be determined to convince Bush that the Taliban should be crushed and Saddam Hussein removed.

In London, too, there has been a shift. Here "immediate action" has given way to "strategic patience". The Prime Minister knows that to embrace the war aims of the US hawks would mean an end to political unity in the UK. The first signs that the Labour left would adopt its usual anti-American, anti-war stance were apparent during the recall of Parliament just days after the terrorist attacks.

They may have been dismissable as the "usual suspects", but the likes of George Galloway, MP for Glasgow Kelvin, and Tam Dalyell, MP for Linlithgow, have like-minded colleagues in higher places. Peter Kilfoyle, the former defence minister, and Clare Short, the International Development Secretary, have both warned against settling old scores and, in doing so, risking civilian lives.

Dissent – never popular in the New Labour ranks – was being quelled last week. Mr Blair called a number of key MPs to No 10 to brief them on developments in a bid to keep them on side. They included members of the defence and foreign affairs select committees. Meanwhile, Hilary Armstrong, the Chief Whip, mustered her team. In private meetings in her Whitehall office, she urged individual whips to calm the various groups of MPs they are responsible for. A government source said: "There doesn't appear to be an overwhelming problem. But we're keeping an eye on them, making sure we know where people are on this."

The Prime Minister, too, has gone out of his way to keep the Opposition parties on board. Iain Duncan Smith, the new Conservative leader, was in Downing Street for a meeting with Mr Blair on Monday. And the Prime Minister spoke to Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, ahead of his speech to the Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth.

Mr Duncan Smith, who is arguably better known in Washington because of his Republican Party connections than he is in London, is completely "on side". But Mr Kennedy and his foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell have urged caution. They have insisted there should be "no blank cheques".

When Ms Short criticised the Prime Minister for declaring that Britain was at war with the terrorists behind the US attacks, her Cabinet colleagues closed ranks. They were furious that she had stepped out of line. But they were doubly cross about the way that she had done it – in an interview for the right-leaning Spectator magazine, with Tory MP and editor Boris Johnson.

Although there is as yet no official war cabinet, it is expected – when military action finally does begin – to include Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Home Secretary David Blunkett, both of whom have developed hardline stances in government. Other members would be Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor – a hawk and confirmed pro-American – and Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General. Other members could include Charles Clarke, the Labour Party chairman, and John Reid, the militaristic Northern Ireland Secretary. At present, however, there is no formal structure. No 10 said Mr Blair was "seeing people when necessary".

Since 11 September, excluding the three days when the Cobra committee met, the Cabinet has gathered just once. With members largely toeing the line, Ms Short's forthright, lone and dove-like comments made that much more impact. She went straight into Gordon Brown's office asking for money to offset the refugee crisis in Pakistan, and got £11m.

Mr Blair's move towards guarding against a humanitarian catastrophe at the end of the week and his promise of aid to the people of Afghanistan was part of his attempt to maintain the moral high ground, while at the same time keeping the Labour Party and the leaders of several less bellicose nations on-side. He has discussed building a "humanitarian coalition" with the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi. The European External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten has held telephone talks with the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The more placatory tone of the past few days was in evidence on Thursday when Mr Blair spent much of the day talking to Muslim leaders. It had to be put across that the "fight is not with Islam or with the people of Afghanistan" but with "those who planned these atrocities and those that harbour them".

But it's behind the scenes where the real influence lies. Although Blair and Bush have not spoken in person since the Prime Minister was in Washington, the "lines are constantly open". Downing Street said Mr Blair was giving "about 70 per cent" of his time to dealing with the terrorist situation, with calls to world leaders such as the Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Australian Prime Minister John Howard. Mr Blair is also receiving regular briefings from the Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce. Other advisers are John Scarlett, head of the joint intelligence committee, Richard Wilson, the Cabinet Secretary, and Sir David Manning, Mr Blair's foreign policy adviser. At most meetings, either Anji Hunter, one of the Prime Minister's closest aides, Alastair Campbell, or Mr Blair's chief of staff Jonathan Powell are present.

A Whitehall source said: "It's very, very top down." There is "little discussion" in Cabinet meetings. "The decisions are taken elsewhere by this unofficial cabinet." But ultimately, only one person will decide if – or when – British troops will go to war – Tony Blair.