Alan Watkins: Whatever the evidence, Mr Blair gets off

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The Independent Online

But at the same time they should remember that sooner or later - it might be sooner than some of them imagined - they would all of them, without exception, be confronted by an even more mighty judge. There would be no escape from Him. He would demand an exact account of their movements on this earth. In particular, He would want to know in detail why they had sent the simple John Jones (or whatever the young man's name was) to a certain death. There would follow from counsel the recitation of some lines from William Williams ("Pantycelyn") or some lesser though equally familiar writer of hymns. And the jury, by this stage of the proceedings terrified out of their wits, would return a verdict of Not Guilty.

Mr Tony Blair reminds me of this young man. Whatever the evidence, he always gets off. He invariably receives the benefit of any doubt that may be hanging around. He possesses an uncanny aptitude for turning a clear disaster into an unequalled triumph of public relations.

Thus the invasion of Iraq was - quite apart from the morality or the legality of the enterprise - the most catastrophic exercise in foreign policy since 1945. It was worse than Suez. It remains worse than Suez, for it is a continuing process, while Suez was a finite event, with a disreputable beginning and a humiliating end. With Iraq, by contrast, there is no end in sight.

A few days ago, Mr George Bush seemed to acknowledge this, with his vainglorious talk about staying to finish the job. We should certainly remember that politicians commonly talk in this way when they have made a mess of things, and Mr Bush is no exception. But United States politicians tend to be more sensitive to the opinion polls than ours are, and accordingly go into a camouflaged reverse mode more readily than ours do.

Besides, in this country there is a curious, moralistic sense of responsibility, which is partly a puritan feeling of having to make amends for past error, and partly the result of the years of Empire. And so Sir Menzies Campbell and the editorial columns of this newspaper are united in proclaiming that we are under some moral obligation to stay in Iraq until... until when, precisely? No one is entirely sure.

At first sight, bringing the troops home appears even less likely than it did five weeks ago, owing to the bombings in London that have taken place in the meantime. To bring the troops home would be to "give in to terrorism", which is something that successive British governments never do in theory but often do in practice. Our reverse gear may be slower to activate than that of the United States, but it is there all the same.

I have lost count of the number of terrorists (formerly called "guerrilla leaders") with whom the government said it would never negotiate but ended up doing precisely that. Archbishop Makarios was turned into a senior statesman. Mr Robert Mugabe was put in power by a combination consisting of Lady Thatcher, Lord Carrington and Lord Powell. Last week Mr Gerry Adams was a guest of Mr Blair, the visit being marred only by the Prime Minister's somewhat childish refusal to shake Mr Adams by the hand for the benefit of the cameras, though he was prepared to do so when no pictures were in danger of being taken.

Mr Bush also said that, because of recent events in Iraq and the latest threats of the Muslim Cleric of the Week - I tell you, it is difficult for even the most conscientious journalist to keep up with these boys - we had been right to attack Iraq in the first place. The logic of this is too twisted for Mr Bush, who is a straightforward sort of chap. It must have been thought up by some bright spark in the White House. Many of those who opposed the war, notably Mr Kenneth Clarke, predicted precisely that military action would turn the country into a centre of terrorism and bring about reprisals of the kind we have already seen in London, Madrid and elsewhere. As well say that it was right to kick the dog because it went on to bite its assailant, so proving its vicious nature!

Public opinion in this country seems to be in a very curious state, as far as one can make it out from the polls. People appear to hold Mr Blair responsible but not to blame him: a contradiction - or perhaps it is not a contradiction - which would have kept the Oxford philosopher J L Austin happily occupied for months. Maybe this is no more than an illustration of the political truth that, in time of trouble, people will always keep a-hold of Nurse for fear of finding something worse; much as the Americans re-elected Mr Bush when several sapient observers expected them to do nothing of the kind. For myself, I should sleep more soundly in my bed with Mr Gordon Brown at No 10, even though he now appears set for a financial fall: but other voters might not feel so safe.

What seems extraordinary is the view that Mr Blair has nothing more to do until he decides to take his leave. He is reminiscent of the New Yorker cartoon showing a crowned figure sitting on a throne, with the caption: "What do you mean, what do I do all day long? I reign, that's what I do." The favourite year for Mr Blair's departure is now 2007, not 2006, as it used to be. By May 2007 he will have done ten years in the job, longer than H H Asquith, Winston Churchill and Harold Wilson. He might still want to beat Margaret Thatcher's 11 years six months. If he did, he would have to hang on until the end of 2008. It seems an awfully long time for Mr Brown to have to wait.

I shall be back, God willing, for the Liberal Democrat conference in September. It is being held, quite unnecessarily, in Blackpool, for there are surely other, smaller, more agreeable towns that can accommodate the Lib Dems. If the prospect proves too dispiriting, I shall avail myself of television's invaluable Parliamentary Channel instead.