Alan Watkins: He is uncontrite. We are not safe in our beds

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The Independent Online

A few days before the Attorney General's various opinions on the legality of the Iraq war bubbled from No 10's back garden, I was talking to a former Labour MP who had been against the war and, indeed, most things this government had done. He was standing again in a marginal seat on an anti-Blair ticket. Whatever I did, he advised, however disillusioned I might feel, I must never on any account leave what he called "the party".

A few days before the Attorney General's various opinions on the legality of the Iraq war bubbled from No 10's back garden, I was talking to a former Labour MP who had been against the war and, indeed, most things this government had done. He was standing again in a marginal seat on an anti-Blair ticket. Whatever I did, he advised, however disillusioned I might feel, I must never on any account leave what he called "the party".

I pointed out that I had not been a member of the Labour Party since 1962, holding as I did the perhaps priggish view that it was improper for a political columnist to be a member of any party at all. This consideration apart, I had no inclination to resume the old path: quite the contrary in fact, for a variety of reasons.

Oddly enough, this former member who was standing again was a friend and ally of Mr Brian Sedgemore. Whether he gave Mr Sedgemore the same advice as he had somewhat superfluously offered me, I do not know. But if he did, it did not produce the desired effect.

And yet, on Thursday, tens of thousands of citizens, themselves neither former members of the House nor even members of the party, will be confronted by the same choice. They are not just the new Labour voters who turned to Mr Tony Blair in 1997 and decided to give him a second chance four years later, but those who regard themselves as "Labour people" and say to canvassers: "We're all Labour here."

In some categories of seat, admittedly, the choice is not too difficult. In Dorset West, for instance, Mr Oliver Letwin has a majority of 1,414 over the Liberal Democrat. On television last week the young Labour candidate could be heard virtually urging his supporters to get Mr Letwin out (agreeable though he may be by present Conservative standards) through voting for the Liberal Democrat candidate rather than for himself. Or, if he was not positively urging this course, he indicated clearly that he could perfectly well understand the motives of anyone who chose to take it.

Then there are the seats which the Liberal Democrats now hold, including the two won by them at by-elections. One factor which has not been remarked on much is that there were few by-elections during the last Parliament, only six. This is well below the old average. Whether this is because MPs are getting younger or because they are taking better care of themselves I do not know, but so it is.

One effect, I suggest - it is no more than a conjecture - will be that this general election will be treated more as a series of by-elections, as an opportunity to make a protest vote. Traditionally, the Liberals did best when there was a protest against a Conservative government in a Tory-held seat. But the terms of political trade have changed. And it may be that the Liberal Democrats will benefit likewise in a protest against a Labour government.

This, however, is by the way. The immediate point is that former Labour supporters should not find it too hard on the nervous system - no nausea or insomnia, which some Labour MPs had on leaving the Labour Party for the SDP - if they voted Liberal Democrat in seats already held by Mr Charles Kennedy.

And there are the seats where the Liberal Democrats came second to Labour last time. There are only 47 of them, so even in the unlikely event of a mass conversion, this would not deprive Mr Blair of his majority; though only 28 additional losses elsewhere would be required to bring about this result.

The week's stirring events may not have made that outcome probable but they have certainly rendered it more likely. Rarely has Mr Blair looked more flyblown, like a man you meet in a City wine bar who says: "Kindly sign this piece of paper, my dear sir, without obligation, I assure you, while I put on my running shoes." The Attorney General's original advice may not amount to a confession of guilt on Mr Blair's part but it is not a damp squib either - to use his own, in the circumstances, rather insensitive phrase (which Mr Kennedy latched on to straightaway).

The first, full opinion should have been offered possibly to Parliament and certainly to the Cabinet. The Prime Minister says that Lord Goldsmith's physical presence at the meeting somehow resolves the matter. But what use is that if ministers not only have no material on which to base their questions but are prohibited - or, at any rate, discouraged - from asking any questions at all? No questions of any sort were asked of Lord Goldsmith at the time.

There is something else. Mr Blair has said that there was no difference between the Attorney's original advice and that which was issued in abbreviated form 10 days later. But there was an important difference. The first opinion (which as we report today was virtually identical to that offered by the Foreign Office legal advisers a year earlier) said that the war might or might not be legal; while the second asserted, though without any great show of conviction, that it was.

Whether this makes Mr Blair a liar is a matter of taste. As I have written here before, I was brought up to believe that the word was not used in polite society. Consequently I do not use it. I once worked for an editor who, after a few drinks, was liable to tell tall tales. When I ventured to suggest that something could not possibly be true, he would say, eyes bulging:

"Are you calling me a liar?"

I would reply:

"No, I just think you're mistaken."

If I were Mr Michael Howard (which thank the Lord I'm not, sir), I should have followed the same course. But there has, perhaps, been a disposition to concentrate too much on Mr Blair's state of mind rather than on what he brought about in Iraq. It reminds me of what Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan:

"In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short."

Mr Blair is uncontrite. He would do the same again. He has said so. This time it may be in Iran, North Korea or wherever next strikes the fancy of Mr George Bush. He is the most belligerent Prime Minister of recent times. We are not safe in our beds. That is why on Thursday I shall be off to to vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate in Islington South & Finsbury.

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