Here is an observation offered to me by one of the shrewdest members of the Cabinet: "If Iraq is not off the front pages by Christmas we're finished." The minister was referring to last Christmas, not the next one. The observation was made during Labour's conference in October. The main story raging at the time was the failure to find any weapons in Iraq. The minister dared to hope the weapons would soon be found. That would be more or less the end of it as far as the front pages were concerned. The Government would breathe again by Christmas, last Christmas.
Political leaders lose control in wars. They are obliged to convey a steely assertiveness, as if they are pulling all the strings. In reality they become dependent on events out of their direct control. Most obviously they are in the hands of military leaders and their troops on the ground. As we are discovering these are not always the most reliable hands to be in.
For British political leaders the loss of control is even greater. They do not lead a superpower, but choose to follow one. Their weak position is made worse because the US government is not in control of itself.
Divided from the outset, President George Bush's administration has never had a clear sense of what it wanted to achieve internationally. Before 11 September 2001, Mr Bush had not made a single speech on foreign affairs. There was a simple reason for this. His advisers could not agree on what it was they wanted to say. The British Government follows a US administration that does not know where it is going. No wonder ministers here are not in control, tossed around by events. The current controversy over the torture of Iraqi prisoners is a case in point, a dark metaphor for the war as a whole. The British scandal is a tiny echo compared with the disastrous and apparently systematic torture carried out by some US troops. But then again that has been the British voice in this war, a tiny echo.
Tony Blair says he did not know about the Red Cross report on the British abuses until earlier this week. Evidently there has been a cock-up rather than a sinister ministerial conspiracy. Yesterday in the Commons, during Prime Minister's Questions, Blair did not explain why he did not know. He is in another trap. If he blamed officials for their failure to inform him he would be attacked in the media for passing the buck. Instead he is criticised for being evasive. He cannot win. On this like much else he is caught by his early decision to support unswervingly the United States, facing more nightmarish consequences as each day passes.
British ministers and officials are decent people who have been out of their depth for more than a year, swamped by events and firefighting on a daily basis: the failure to secure a second UN resolution in advance of the war, parliamentary revolts, the death of David Kelly, the Hutton inquiry, parliamentary inquiries, by-election defeats, the lack of any weapons and the near civil war in parts of Iraq. A single decision to go to war has unleashed a torrent of events, as if the gods are seeking revenge. No wonder there are cock ups, breakdowns in communication between exhausted officials and exhausted, demoralised ministers.
The growing perception in Britain of a government no longer in control of events is incomparably more damaging than a loss of trust. Politicians in this country tend to be viewed cynically at the best of times. It is our lazy default position: these politicians are up to no good. But quite often, even when they are not trusted, governments are respected for being in control, for shaping events. It is when political leaders appear to be at the mercy of events that they are in deep trouble. Look at what happened to John Major, once hailed for his reassuring competence and then viewed with disdain as he lost authority. Some Labour MPs are starting to mutter that what is happening now reminds them of that last tottering Conservative administration. Yet on the domestic front there is much for them to cheer about. Major would have given much for the good news that passes by almost unnoticed at the moment. Yesterday in the Commons, Blair attempted to muster some excitement by pointing out that unemployment is lower than it has been for 20 years, a significant achievement.
Last week official figures showed a big reduction in hospital waiting lists, a vindication of the Government's approach. The higher public spending combined with tentative reforms is making a difference. Earlier this week even The Sun newspaper acknowledged improvements in the NHS, although it placed the credit on the involvement of the private sector. Still here was a straw in the wind, semi- praise for the NHS from The Sun.
But on the whole these astonishing items of good news are wiped out. They do not make the front pages and - as the cabinet minister I spoke to last October will have noted - a long time has passed since Christmas. Yet these two domestic developments are connected. The low level of unemployment means more people are in work and paying taxes. The higher investment in hospitals is the consequence of economic growth as well as necessary tax increases. Mr Blair should be in a position to demonstrate conclusively that higher investment in public services leads to tangible improvements. In Britain we have been told for so long that higher public spending is a waste of money. This is a moment when we might have learnt otherwise from a political leader in command of the domestic agenda. Sadly Iraq diverts the focus. A supreme political opportunity is passing by because of the war and its aftermath.
The governments in the US and Britain were so focused on navigating a route to war they paid little attention to what would happen afterwards. This was obvious from the beginning of last year. Those pro-war Labour MPs who are now in despair about "losing the peace" were given plenty of warnings in advance.
There was a largely unreported debate in the Commons a month before the conflict on the plans for the aftermath. Closing the debate, Clare Short, in her role as International Development Secretary, revealed that the United Nations was not making detailed preparations because it could not accept that war was inevitable. She insisted that the British and US governments did not believe the war was inevitable either. The manoeuvrings beforehand when the US and Britain claimed to be seeking a "diplomatic solution" are part of the reason for the chaos now. Everyone was pretending that the war might not take place so could hardly be seen preparing for what would happen afterwards.
In theory the British government retains control over its own troops and exit strategy. Ministers could distance themselves from the discredited US administration. But in doing so they would call into question all that has happened over the last 18 months. How can they reassert control when so much has been given away? There is a real danger that Iraq will still be on the front pages this Christmas.Reuse content