No celebrations for Blair as 'reckoning' over conflict looms

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair's worst moments during the Iraq crisis came before rather than during the war. His nadir was a four-day period in which Downing Street came close to meltdown.

It began with Clare Short's extraordinary threat to resign over Mr Blair's "reckless" strategy on Iraq. The next day, Jacques Chirac, the French President, threatened to veto the new UN resolution that Britain – if not the United States – was still working desperately to achieve to endorse military action.

Then Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, made a ham-fisted attempt to be helpful, suggesting America might launch a war without Britain. That prospect threatened to fuel the Labour backbench rebellion in the criticial Commons vote on the war on 18 March.

In the run-up to the debate, the mood in Number 10 was febrile. Labour whips had warned Mr Blair that up to 200 MPs could rebel. Although he could still win the vote, he would have the humiliation of relying on the support of the Tories. Mr Blair realised he might have to resign. Other ministers, including Jack Straw and David Blunkett, have said in the past week they would have joined him.

Although Labour would have remained in power, the threat that the whole Government would fall was used during the frantic arm-twisting by cabinet ministers and whips ahead of the vote. In the event, Mr Blair was relieved to contain the rebellion to 139 – still the largest suffered by a governing party.

After the vote, things became easier. "We could finally see a way through. It was easier to make the transition from peace to war," one Blair aide recalled yesterday. Of course, there were anxieties once the military action had begun. The Prime Minister had no idea how long the war would last. He repeatedly asked officials for intelligence on whether Saddam Hussein's regime would collapse like a pack of cards or whether it enjoyed the support of the Iraqi people.

Privately, Mr Blair was haunted by the V-word – Vietnam. When he travelled to Camp David for a summit with President Bush on 27 March, the American papers were full of predictions by military sources that the war could last three months. Labour rebels started to use the V-word.

Grim news on "friendly fire" incidents and civilian casualties was received phlegmatically by Mr Blair. He took pride from the performance of the British forces, particularly over the way they handled the capture of Basra. One aide said: "He didn't shout from the rooftops when things went well, but equally he didn't sink into despair when they went badly."

Although he looked washed-out and grey, cabinet ministers say the Prime Minister never displayed outward signs of his inner worries. "He showed his inner steel," one said.

Suddenly, everything moved fast on the ground. When Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, the Chief of the Defence Staff, told the War Cabinet that US troops were advancing rapidly towards Baghdad airport, some ministers did not believe it. "Where on earth has the Republican Guard gone?" one said. When the War Cabinet met at 8.45am on 9 April, the intelligence reports gave no clue to the remarkable scenes starting to unfold on the streets of Baghdad. Mr Blair spent much of the day glued to the large television on the wall of the office occupied by Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff, and Jeremy Heywood, his principal private secretary, where he watched the toppling of Saddam's statue in the capital.

Although Mr Blair has now caught up on his sleep, he has had little time to celebrate. He has plenty of problems on the domestic agenda.

The war may be over but the problems stemming from it are not. Until weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq, the conflict will still leave a nasty taste in the mouths of many Labour MPs – and perhaps many voters who will remember as long as the next general election.

The wounds left by the war are festering, as a shocked Mr Blair discovered with Tuesday's humiliating public rebuff by Vladimir Putin, the Russian President. Relations with France are still fragile. The "reckoning" that Mr Blair wants on the relationship between America and Europe is going to be long and painful.