Like a child's game of consequences, Blair's actions make no sense at all

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The Independent Online

The response of the British government was astonishing in its speed. Within hours of the terrorist attacks in Istanbul on Thursday it published a summary on the casualties of terrorism in recent years, as if it had been waiting for the terrible moment to arrive when Britain became an explicit target. At his joint press conference with President Bush, Tony Blair explained the thinking behind the summary: "It is quite interesting to see just how many countries have been affected... how many thousands of people have died over this period of time." The message was clear: Britain or Britons living abroad have not become more vulnerable because of Blair's support for the war. The terrorists strike indiscriminately. The Government put the case before anyone dared to suggest culpability.

The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, was uncharacteristically ferocious on this theme when challenged by John Humphrys on the Today programme on Friday. Normally, Straw adopts a conversational approach when interrogated by Humphrys. He is one of the few Cabinet ministers who relish these encounters, regarding them as something of a stimulating challenge. This time he sounded indignant rather than stimulated. How dare Humphrys suggest that the war against Iraq might have been a factor in the attacks on Thursday? The more Humphrys pressed him, the more furious Straw became: "You listen to me John, you listen to me... this is utter and palpable nonsense." Humphrys had been listening and his questions were not only valid, but also necessary.

The Government has been protesting too much, desperate to quell any suggestion that a consequence of the war against Iraq was the terrorist attacks. Such has been the intensity of the assertion it is almost as if senior ministers want to convince themselves as much as anyone else.

Who can blame them if they are tortured by self-doubt disguised as over-assertiveness? At the start of the year they told us that the attack on Iraq was an essential part of the war against terrorism. Opponents here argued the opposite, that the attack would heighten the risk of terrorism and make Britain more of a target. The opponents were not alone. Last September's Intelligence Committee report revealed that the Prime Minister had received intelligence warning him that the threat of terrorism would intensify if the US and Britain invaded.

Other senior figures, including Bill Clinton and George Bush Snr, raised discreet questions about whether the war against terrorism should be a bigger priority than an attack on Iraq. Experts warned that Osama bin Laden would be delighted at the prospect of such a war: at a stroke it would remove Saddam - whom he despised - and as a bonus fracture the unique international coalition that arose after 11 September. Months before the war Clare Short, speaking as a Cabinet minister, said that she had visited Afghanistan and feared that terrorists were re-grouping outside Kabul, free to do so because the attention and resources of the US had moved on.

There is a game called consequences that kids still play occasionally on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Each person writes down on cards an event, and a consequence of that event. The cards are shuffled and read out in a muddled sequence with one event leading to consequences that appear to make no sense at all. Some political leaders play a similar game. They surprise us, and quite possibly themselves, with the consequences of their policies.

Earlier this year we were told by senior figures in the US and UK governments that the war against Iraq was essential to alleviate the threat of terror. They made their case with great passion. So far there is no sign whatever that this has been the consequence of the war. Instead a military attack, apparently prompted by the threat of terrorism, appears to have done little to make the world safer and arguably has made the situation even more deadly than it was before. The apparent consequence makes no sense. Britain goes to war to address the threat of terrorism. The terrorists strike persistently in the aftermath of war.

Thinking through the practical consequences of policies is not one of Blair's intellectual strengths. He has an astonishing grasp of detail, ranging across every area of government policy. Yet there are times when he seems blind to the possible implications of what he advocates with such force. There are echoes of Mrs Thatcher's style. She hailed the sale of council houses and would occasionally be photographed having a cup of tea with a former tenant who was now a proud property owner. Yet she was indifferent to the less rosy consequences of her flagship policy: a shortage of affordable rented accommodation and therefore recruitment crises for public services in areas where property was expensive.

To take a more topical example, I can visualise already the photos of the Prime Minister on a triumphant visit to a new foundation hospital, claiming that, while some Labour MPs rebelled last week, they would want one of these in their constituency. Of course they would. If one hospital is given advantages over others, doctors and nurses will all wish to move in at the earliest opportunity. The problem is that the less privileged hospitals nearby are likely to decline further. The Health Secretary, Dr Reid, inadvertently let the cat out of the bag in an article he wrote in advance of last week's vote: "I do not suggest choice is absolute, because we all know capacity is not infinite. Of course we need extra capacity to make up for historic under-investment.... Without the increase in capacity, choice will remain theoretical at best and a cruel deception at worst."

The problem is that after decades of under-investment the NHS is in no state to offer choice. Real choice will arise if and when there is a surplus of GPs competing for our attention or nearly all hospitals are performing to a high level. Foundation hospitals are an artificial means to lift the level of performance of a few hospitals, leaving those nearby to struggle on an uneven playing field. The NHS is in need of urgent reform to go with the huge increases in Government spending, breaking up preposterous demarcation lines, reducing the number of managers, ending the national pay rates that largely ignore the huge variations in the cost of living. Instead, the Government has expended vast energy and political goodwill over an initiative that will create a few good hospitals and undermine several others.

Read the small print of this week's Queen's Speech. There will be some eye-catching ideas with genuinely admirable objectives. But have they been properly thought through? When adults play consequences it can be a dangerous game, with many losers.