Michael Portillo: For a time I believed him

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The Independent Online

I've supported Tony Blair over Iraq, but last week he disappointed me. On Wednesday, he faced the House of Commons charged with having "sexed up" the evidence on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the run-up to the war. In a performance worthy of Harry Houdini, he gave his accusers the slip. But slippery was how he looked.

Heavy handedly he reminded us that Saddam Hussein had been a murderous tyrant. He evoked the piles of mutilated bodies discovered in Iraq since its liberation, and expressed his pride in the troops who'd set it free. He's quite right. But he hoped we wouldn't remember that before the war he told us repeatedly that weapons of mass destruction were the point at issue. Back then, he opened clear water between himself and George Bush. While the President talked happily of wanting a regime change, the Prime Minister said that, provided Saddam gave up the weapons, we would be happy to leave him in power. Logically then, we would have acquiesced while Saddam went on torturing and piling up the corpses. So, logically too, Blair cannot now claim that the Allies' success in toppling the dictator justifies the war.

When challenged about the failure to find any weapons so far, the Prime Minister looked pained. Couldn't we understand that since the victory the priority had been to re-establish security for Iraqis and restore their essential services, rather than hunt around for weapons that could wait to be found till a later date? I, for one, find it difficult to understand. I remember the Prime Minister compellingly arguing that the greatest danger of all was that the fearful biological and chemical devices would fall into the hands of al-Qa'ida, to be used against our cities. With such a clear and present danger, would not finding and securing the weapons and laboratories be a priority at least equal to restoring law and order? Has al-Qa'ida assured us that it will allow us a few months to get our act together, before it shops around in Iraq?

It's interesting to remember that one of the things that Hans Blix, the UN weapons inspector, most criticised in the Saddam regime was its tendency to change its story. Luckily, nobody has asked him to put the British government under equally rigorous scrutiny.

I am now so long in the tooth that I don't often feel like I've been taken for a sucker. But before the war, I said that I thought we had a new Blair on our hands, a Prime Minister who had given up being all things to all people, who would lead from the front, and who had renounced spin. How could I have been so naive? "Spin" is engraved through Blair like "Brighton Rock". How could I have thought that he'd reformed, given his oleaginous performance after Labour took a million pounds from Formula One racing, and he changed the law on tobacco advertising in motor racing? I was revolted then by his plea: "Trust me. You know I'm a pretty regular sort of a guy." Now I see that in the run-up to the Iraq war, when he needed to be entirely straight with the evidence, he couldn't kick his addiction to spin.

That's what emerges from the leaks given to the press by security officers. John Reid, the Leader of the House, talked of rogue elements determined to do down the Government - a ludicrous statement that will earn him a place, alongside Harold Wilson, in the Book of British Paranoids. The simpler truth is that Blair (and Bush) tried to put much more weight on some of the evidence on WMD than it would bear, and some professionals on both sides of the Atlantic have expressed their dismay in public.

In particular, Blair wanted to convince us of the urgent need for action. The thought that the lethal weapons could be deployed at 45 minutes' notice supplied his needs, and so it was not only included in the so-called "dodgy dossier" put out last September, but elevated to the foreword, where it stood highlighted above the Prime Minister's own signature.

It was a central part of the Allies' case. In the months before the war, Blair and Bush were a double act. The President supplied the political willpower and the military might, and the Prime Minister was the rhetorical wing of the partnership, shaping the words that would justify the action. With his barrister's training, Blair knew that the case had to be crafted to win in the United Nations Security Council (even though in the end it didn't) and to be blessed by the British Attorney General. Bush wasn't much concerned with such matters, and so talked freely about bringing down Saddam. That's why he's in less trouble now than Blair is.

In my view, there was a good case for the war, but WMD were not at the heart of it. The attacks on 11 September 2001 came after 10 years of American feebleness. Al-Qa'ida hit America repeatedly, with a bomb under the World Trade Centre, and attacks on US barracks in Saudi Arabia, US embassies in East Africa, and the warship USS Cole. America hardly responded, allowing terrorists to believe that the world's greatest democracy had grown too flabby and decadent to defend its citizens. On a parallel track, Saddam escalated his defiance of the restrictions imposed after the Gulf War. He bombed his own people, broke the no-fly zone, harassed the weapons inspectors and eventually drove them out. No reaction. Palestinian rioters recognised Saddam as the supreme example of Arab defiance, and swapped their placards of Yasser Arafat for images of the Iraqi leader. When the US finally woke up to the results of its impotence, it had to deal with the defiance of both Osama bin Laden and Saddam.

In fact, put in a slightly different way, that is the argument that finally convinced the Attorney General to assent to war. The winning argument was not so much that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, but that he had a 12-year history of thwarting Security Council resolutions. I'd go further, and say that prospects for peace in the Middle East wouldn't be half as good if the war hadn't provided an exemplary display of willpower and might by the United States. For all the whingeing by all our European partners, the Arab world has no respect for pussyfooters.

Another unmet demand that Blix made of the Saddam regime was the opportunity to interview witnesses in conditions where they couldn't be intimidated by their government. A similar challenge faces the two House of Commons committees charged with looking into the use of intelligence material before the war. Can they take British intelligence officers aside and discover whether their information was misused by the Prime Minister when he made the case for war? Will either committee feel free to report its findings? Given that one committee is appointed by Blair and that the other has an inbuilt Labour majority, I'm not holding my breath.

Spin was the making of Blair, and it will be his demise. He's given his opponents a dream slogan: "You can't believe a word he says." To be effective, that mantra needs to be repeated daily from now to election day. But that may not worry the Prime Minister too much. The opposition has never before shown such self-discipline, so maybe he'll give them the slip again.