Those bloody weapons

There is a dark irony in a war becoming a credibility problem for Tony Blair
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This has been the strangest political summer for more than a decade. All that has followed the war against Iraq has seemed oddly understated. The euro decision came and went. A cabinet reshuffle of radical potential became a fleeting story of clumsy ineptitude. Tony Blair and his colleagues were here, there and everywhere, as busy as ever, and yet they have exuded a ghostly quality, as if they were not quite here at all.

The broader context has eclipsed the hurly-burly of daily events. There is a whiff in the air of the summer of 1992, when Conservative ministers went about their daily business as usual and in the evenings hosted sunny end-of-term gatherings for journalists. Everyone sensed something much more significant was looming. There would be no more sunshine. The Danes had rejected the Maastricht Treaty and sterling was struggling for life in the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Within a few months, that summer of unease had turned into an autumn of torture for John Major.

Now it is the war against Iraq that hovers over everything else. Just before the war a close ally of the Prime Minister told me that he anticipated an outbreak of coherent Blairite boldness in the light of a military victory. A few days ago I asked him why there had been no rosy aftermath. He paused before stating, "We haven't found the bloody weapons". The glaring contradiction between the absence of the weapons and the intensity of Blair's warnings in advance of the war has reduced everything else to a sideshow. There can be no more serious question hanging over a political leader: did he send British troops to war on a false premise?

There is a dark irony in a war becoming a credibility problem for Blair. When he became Labour leader he resolved to approach military matters robustly, in distinct contrast to Labour in the 1980s. Under Michael Foot Labour was defiantly unilateralist. The Conservatives depicted Foot's successor, Neil Kinnock, in posters with his arms in the air surrendering weakly to invading armies. This was the time when Labour lost elections.

New Labour resolved to be different. Donald Macintyre's excellent biography of Peter Mandelson includes an illuminating revelation that places recent events in a wider context. Macintyre reports the private exchanges between Blair and his close allies over their replacement of Labour's Clause Four in the mid- 1990s. In the international section of the new Blairite clause a late draft referred to a "peaceful resolution" of conflict. Deeply scarred by Labour's unilateralist past, Mandelson scrawled in the margin: "Won't a Blair government ever go to war?" The dove-like tone in that late draft became more hawkish in the final document.

The implication was clear: the weak-kneed, vote-losing, unilateralist days were over. There were many complex reasons for Blair's support for President Bush, but here, from the beginning of his leadership, is the starting point of the path that led to Britain supporting the war against Iraq. The Prime Minister and his allies were determined to show that Labour would be tough on defence. From very early in his leadership Blair decided he would be an unswerving ally of the United States, including in times of war.

And what does a Blair government get for its bellicosity? It is not trusted and is less popular than before. Blair is playing out his own film noir, a leading character who took a different route to avoid the fate of his predecessors, only to discover his path is at least as treacherous.

There is another terrible twist. After the 1992 election Labour strategists reported that the party had lost again for a single reason: it was still not trusted. For New Labour seeking to purge the past, securing the trust of voters was not a precondition to victory, it was almost an end in itself. All those incremental policies were put together with such elaborate caution for a purpose: it was better to deliver on what they promised rather than promise too much. That way they could win back trust. No wonder at last week's special cabinet meeting ministers focused on trust. New Labour cannot breathe very long without it.

Last week's pugnacious and unapologetic prime ministerial response to the absence of weapons can be explained only one of two ways. Blair is either genuinely confident that startling material will turn up in the desert, or he has opted for the Thatcher approach after the Falklands. Thatcher was persistently questioned about the controversial sinking of the Belgrano. She never conceded a millimetre on the issue, affecting horror at even being asked about it. In the end people lost interest. Thatcher-like, a New Labour government must not admit to making errors in war.

The missing weapons are likely to be more of a nagging sore than the Belgrano proved to be. The Falklands war was less controversial at the outset and had a neat conclusion. Neither applies to Iraq. Blair is paying the price of a particularly convoluted form of triangulation. The neo-conservatives in Washington were fairly open that their objective was to get rid of Saddam. France and Germany were equally open in their opposition. Blair sought a way of bringing them all together over the weapons issue and has ended up in the most vulnerable position of the lot, the bridge builder without a bridge.

Unlike John Major, Blair has the buttress of a massive majority in the Commons and presides over a relatively benign economic situation. It is by no means inevitable that this eerily shapeless summer should become a nightmarish autumn. And yet it is not clear either, how or with what policies, Blair will be able to regain the initiative. For certain, the precondition to recovery is the need to regain trust. If the Prime Minister does not believe the weapons will be found he should come clean and explain more candidly why he went to war.

If he were being fully candid he would start in the mid-1990s, when Mandelson posed the question about whether a Blair government would go to war. Blair's determination then to show that Labour had changed helped to create the political space that he still enjoys. But indirectly that very determination to be "new" has led to his own distinctly precarious position where he waits anxiously for weapons to be found in a desert. Farewell Wilson, Kinnock and Foot. Yes, a Blair government would fight a war.