A mistaken sense of smugness at Number 10

The Westminster view leaves out the outside view: the public belief that Blair lied to it
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The Independent Online

In a very British way, the public seems to have made up its mind about Tony Blair and Iraq. According to the latest ICM poll, well over half of the country thinks that he lied over Iraq and that the invasion of the country was unjustified, but most assume that he'll still survive anyhow.

In a very British way, the public seems to have made up its mind about Tony Blair and Iraq. According to the latest ICM poll, well over half of the country thinks that he lied over Iraq and that the invasion of the country was unjustified, but most assume that he'll still survive anyhow.

It's a far cry from the discourse of Parliament, which this week debated the issue under the repeated assumption that nobody doubts the Prime Minister's good faith over going to war. There is probably still a majority in the Commons - although this has still to be tested - who believes that the invasion was right. Nor does public opinion reflect Lord Butler's report, still less the conclusions of Lord Hutton and two parliamentary committees, all of which specifically cleared the Prime Minister of deliberately distorting intelligence in the run-up to war.

It doesn't even, I think, arise from the media, for all that ministers accuse the "liberal press" of drumming up anti-Blair feeling. But the press has never really managed to catch out Tony Blair in a deliberate untruth.

Indeed the greatest direct casualty has been the media, which has seen the resignation of three of its top people (the chairman and director general of the BBC, and the editor of the Daily Mirror) and which has never really recovered its self-confidence after the Gilligan débâcle. It thought it had the power to bring down ministers and even the Prime Minister. In the end, it has been forced to recognise that only Parliament has the power to do that. So long as Parliament remains subservient, the press cannot achieve nearly as much as it thinks, or Number 10's obsession with the media has encouraged it to assume.

In that sense, the apparent public acceptance that Blair can, and will, ride it out is pretty shrewd. It's based less on what the public believes should happen than a simple estimate of the weakness of the opposition. This has been enough to bring out the champagne in Number 10, and bring a smile of peculiar smugness to Tony Blair. Politicians and the press alike seem now to have reached the conclusion that Blair is away into the home stretch and a certain third term.

Maybe so. But the view from Westminster still leaves out the other part of the equation: the public belief that its leader lied to it, and took it in to an unjustified war. That, by any standard, is a pretty appalling conclusion. And it is one that it's hard to see being altered.

From the start of the Iraq issue, Number 10 has consistently underestimated the passions aroused in the country at large. Blair, and his supporters, are still inclined to talk of opposition to the war as if it were confined to a few woolly-minded Lib Dems and some maliciously inclined opponents in the media. It wasn't. The millions who came out in demonstration did so because they profoundly believed the war to be wrong in principle and suspect in motivation.

The revelations about the paucity and misuse of intelligence have only made them angrier. At the same time - and this, too, Blair tends to underestimate - a proportion (I suspect a substantial one) of the public was unhappy about the war but persuaded to support invasion on the grounds that the Prime Minister must have had good reason for saying Saddam was too big a threat to warrant waiting for UN approval. These people now feel betrayed. Even those who, in a very English way, accept that we went to war on the wrong grounds but that, in the end, it was the right thing to do to unseat a tyrant, feel incensed that Blair has not had the courage to be honest with them about the reasons.

That sense of anger and betrayal is simply not going to allow the Prime Minister to achieve closure on the issue, even if things go "right" in Iraq. Each time there is an occasion - the death of our soldiers, a new revelation about intelligence, further hearings by the parliamentary committees - it will flare up again. The combination of a public which no longer trusts its premier but doesn't believe it can do anything about it is not a good one in democratic politics. It will keep coming back to bite Blair any time he is perceived to have become complacent or uncaring.

This week saw Tony Blair putting the final touches to his "narrative" justifying war - that he was concerned with Saddam Hussein's potential threat to world peace, that his intention to deceive put him in conflict with UN resolution 1441, and that Britain and the US couldn't wait for UN sanction because certain countries (ie France) weren't prepared to accept an ultimatum.

But this week also showed a majority of the British public holding to a different narrative - that Blair backed a war that the US had predetermined for reasons of its own, that he needed, for legal reasons, to show that there was a clear and immediate danger from Saddam, that, hey presto, a handful of intelligence sources was suddenly found (and then discarded) to justify that claim, and that the Prime Minister still won't come clean about it.

After this week's debates, no one can deny Blair's mastery of the Commons. But until he can find some way of reconciling, or at any rate bridging, the two narratives of war, he cannot hope to master the public.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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