Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

MPs ask: Is Blair in denial over Iraq link to terror?
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The Independent Online

Yet in private, many difficult questions are being asked and eventually there will be a more public debate than is deemed respectable in the immediate wake of the 7 July atrocities. The failed second wave of attacks may further postpone the reckoning, but it will come.

As they departed for Parliament's 11-week summer break, some MPs were wondering whether the climate would be so favourable for the Prime Minister when they return. Even some Blair loyalists are worried that the public will ask whether the Government has devoted enough attention to what the Americans call "homeland security" and has spent rather too much time on sorting out the problems of the rest of the world.

Such thoughts could strike a dangerous chord. Although he didn't win, the Democratic candidate John Kerry did inflict some damage on George Bush in last year's presidential election when he accused him of neglecting safety at home.

The other fear among ministers is that the more incidents there are in Britain, the more the public will wonder if they are linked to the Iraq war. I have met plenty of Labour MPs who believe Mr Blair is in denial about the link. They are not only the usual suspects who opposed the war.

These MPs do not believe the London attacks were a direct response to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. But they make what one MP called the "common sense point" that there is bound to be a connection. I am not surprised an ICM poll found two out of three people think there is a link.

It took Monday's report by the Chatham House think-tank to break the taboo about talking about the "Iraq factor". Until then, the Government had given the impression that mentioning the link was somehow condoning the bombings, which is nonsense.

Some Blair advisers fret that it will be hard to persuade people that his foreign policy has made Britain as well as the world a safer place. On the night British troops went into Iraq, he told the nation: "My judgement, as Prime Minister, is that this threat is real, growing and of an entirely different nature to any conventional threat to our security that Britain has faced before." The only trouble is that the "threat" he was talking about was Saddam Hussein's non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

Nine days ago, Mr Blair told the Cabinet it was wrong to argue that the 7 July attacks were nothing to do with Islam. In a speech, he said some people were blaming the rise in extremism on anything but religion - discrimination, poverty and, of course, Iraq.

The Prime Minister took refuge in one of his favourite analogies when he spoke about the need for moderate Muslims to root out the militants in their ranks. He compared it to the infiltration of the Labour Party by the Trotskyite Militant Tendency in the 1980s, about which the party was in denial for many years. Mr Blair knows a bit about Militant: he helped his boss Derry Irvine, later to become his Lord Chancellor, with the legal advice which enabled Labour to expel prominent Militants.

Muslim leaders may have turned a blind eye to problems in their community that were judged too difficult to tackle. But Mr Blair's parallel has its limits. Britain's Muslim community can't "expel" its militants: if it ostracised them, it might make them more likely to resort to violence. Instead, they have to wean them off their extremist views.

That battle is made harder by the terrible events in Iraq, another unspoken fear in Labour circles that Mr Blair would rather not talk about. In the Commons on Wednesday, he said the terrorist acts in Iraq were "aimed at destroying the possibility of that country becoming a democracy". He was replying to a question from Charles Kennedy, who was rather surprised on the grounds that at least some of those using violence in Iraq are fighting what they regard as a puppet regime backed by the US and Britain.

The political consensus at Westminster is not as strong as it appears. Mr Blair is working hard to keep the Tory Opposition onside. But his body language in the Commons shows he is fed up with the Liberal Democrats. Why? It has a lot to do with Mr Kennedy's speech after the 7 July bombings, in which he argued that the war and the "mismanagement" in Iraq since had fuelled terrorism and increased the threat in Britain.

Mr Kennedy, who did not claim a "causal link" between Iraq and the London attacks, thought hard before making his speech. Some senior colleagues advised him to leave it alone. But his essential argument was endorsed by the Chatham House report.

To his credit, Mr Blair has repeatedly urged President Bush to tackle the causes as well as the symptoms of terrorism. He has acknowledged that the Middle East question is a root cause. If Palestine, why not Iraq? Perhaps it is just too close to home.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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