Steve Richards: Tony Blair has earned all this praise, but there are troublesome questions ahead

In no way does it condone the killers to ask: how has the war against Iraq made Britain more secure?

Tony Blair is receiving the most positive media coverage since the autumn of 2001, when he was similarly praised for his response to the attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September. The adulation extends beyond the media. Some senior Labour insiders who had feared a terrible collapse of support in next May's local elections dare to wonder whether their party will soar once more. One of them, an ardent supporter of Gordon Brown, makes an almost blasphemous observation. He tells me that Mr Blair is an electoral asset again.

But in the same way that the pre-election anti-Blair coverage in parts of the media was malevolently or naively over the top, so the swing in the opposite direction should be treated with caution. There is no doubt that Mr Blair has achieved much of substance over the last week. He played a pivotal role in the final triumphant pitch for London to host the Olympics, displaying a characteristically unstuffy and calm persuasiveness in Singapore. At Gleneagles, his relationship with President Bush was a key factor in securing a substantial deal on aid for Africa.

Mr Blair's support for the war against Iraq was based largely on a pragmatic calculation about the value of an alliance with the world's only superpower. At the G8 last week, he benefited from the co-operation of a sceptical president, at least in relation to Africa. This is not a defence of Mr Blair's backing for the war, and as I shall go on to explain the conflict will rightly resurface as an issue. But the significant success at the G8, hinging on the Anglo-American relationship, highlights the multi-layered complexity of the decisions Mr Blair faced in advance of the war.

The cause for caution now is partly because we have been here before. There are uncanny echoes with the start of Mr Blair's second term, which opened in a mood of shapeless doubt and came to life in the dark context of an international crisis on 11 September. At the start of the third term, questions about the Government's overall purpose and Mr Blair's future are swept aside once more by the unforeseen crisis in Europe and the terrorists' bombs.

Mr Blair was widely hailed at the start of the unfolding international crisis in 2001, but by the end of his second term he was derided by the same sources as a scheming liar. Of course, there is no certainty that a similar sequence will follow this time, but the events of the second term illustrate the fickle nature of public and political opinion in relation to the way a prime minister responds to a crisis.

In the immediate aftermath of the bombings in London, Mr Blair and his Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, have responded deftly with a tone that combines defiance with a sensitive proclamation of London's multiculturalism. In some ways, the bombs in London are more immediately bleaker, but less complicated, for Mr Blair than 11 September and Iraq. Then, he was overwhelmed by all his cautious instincts. Old Labour was seen as anti-American and soft on defence, therefore he must be seen as pro-American and tough on defence.

During his first test as a leader responding to a terrorist attack in the UK, Mr Blair was also gripped by the need to be perceived as a "strong" leader. After the Omagh bombing, he rushed through anti-terrorist legislation that was largely irrelevant in practical terms. The laws have hardly been applied since they came into effect. But Mr Blair was inexperienced enough to feel the need to be seen to be responding. For reasons of weakness, the symbolism mattered more than the substance.

Now the mood is commendably restrained. Mr Clarke is a more controlled political performer than his predecessor. As home secretary, David Blunkett often displayed a spontaneous anger, accompanied by the calculated thought that Mr Blair would approve of his outburst. In contrast, Mr Clarke has deployed no emotive language and acknowledged that the bombings have no relevance to the debate on ID cards. Mr Blair, too, has shown restraint, less worried about rushing through ill-thought-out legislation.

But his unswerving alliance with the US which enabled him to make progress at Gleneagles means also that he is unable to move beyond sweeping condemnation of the terrorists. The limits of his defiance make his position potentially more precarious in the longer term.

In an illuminating letter in yesterday's Independent, Peter Caws, the university professor of philosophy at George Washington University, wrote in relation to the terrorists: "To stress the method without a serious acknowledgment of the aims and their reason is to miss the point. This is what Mr Blair and Mr Bush seem to do." Mr Blair and Mr Bush have no choice but to miss the point, because to risk acknowledging in any way their own inadvertent culpability would place them in a politically impossible position.

The debate about whether the war against Iraq has made Britain a target for terrorists goes around in inconclusive circles. But while the opponents of the war cannot prove a connection, Mr Bush and Mr Blair are in no position to argue credibly that the conflict has improved security in Iraq and around the world.

The war against Iraq was an irrational response to what had become a near global struggle against terrorism. The conflict divided the newly formed international coalition and turned Iraq into a terrorists' playground. One accurate item of pre-war intelligence was the warning that the conflict would increase the risk of terrorism. Last Thursday's bombings suggest the war has done nothing to diminish the threat. In no way does it condone the killers to ask: how has the war against Iraq made Britain more secure? It is on this question, one of judgement and not integrity, that Mr Blair remains vulnerable politically.

In the House of Commons yesterday, there was a display of unity and support for Mr Blair, who managed once more to strike the right note. As I wrote last Friday, some of those expressing support yesterday had wrongly questioned his motives in the past for seeking strong anti-terrorist legislation. But in the future, when it is symbolically and politically safe to do, troublesome questions will surface in the Commons and elsewhere about the reasons for the increased threat posed by terrorists. For a prime minister, the immediate aftermath of a national crisis is painfully traumatic, but politically unchallenging.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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