The Tories should sound the retreat over Iraq

Democracy means accepting that voters have the right to opt out of unwinnable wars
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The Independent Online

The defeat of the Spanish conservative Popular Party has cast a long shadow over the political futures of George Bush and Tony Blair. The election result was a direct consequence of the voters of that country making a clear connection between the association of the previous Aznar administration with the Bush/Blair "war on terror" that resulted in over 200 of its citizens being killed. The sense that the people were also lied to, as to the perpetrators, on the eve of the polls opening, mirrors the suspicions here that we were lied to over weapons of mass destruction. The feeling is growing that the war in Iraq was based on one big lie that has resulted in the world becoming even more dangerous. Electoral retribution may become contagious.

The defeat of the Spanish conservative Popular Party has cast a long shadow over the political futures of George Bush and Tony Blair. The election result was a direct consequence of the voters of that country making a clear connection between the association of the previous Aznar administration with the Bush/Blair "war on terror" that resulted in over 200 of its citizens being killed. The sense that the people were also lied to, as to the perpetrators, on the eve of the polls opening, mirrors the suspicions here that we were lied to over weapons of mass destruction. The feeling is growing that the war in Iraq was based on one big lie that has resulted in the world becoming even more dangerous. Electoral retribution may become contagious.

The chances are that, even in the US, voters are making similar secret calculations away from the detection of the pollsters. "Are you safer now than before 11 September 2001?" is a question which will be posed by John Kerry during the coming months. The outlines of his campaign already show that he will focus as much attention on international affairs as on the domestic agenda. For the first time since Ronald Reagan, presidential elections will not just be about "the economy, stupid".

A nervous Mr Blair will be watching the outcome of this presidential campaign and, if Kerry wins, a completely new approach to foreign policy will be heralded - leaving Mr Blair high and dry. If Spanish public opinion is any guide to American, many US voters are looking at the international evidence and concluding that President Bush started a war on terror which ultimately looks like being lost.

But the nightmare of such an outcome for Mr Blair leaves the Conservative Party also having to face up to some hard decisions. It may well be that public opinion here is, for the moment, marginally still in favour of the war in Iraq, but further terrorist threats - and a change of the White House occupant - will alter that. Voters expect any government to secure the safety of its citizens. With the Metropolitan Police Commissioner yesterday more or less explicit in his talk of an "inevitable" terrorist attack on London, it becomes a legitimate issue for voters to consider whether the current approach to the Iraqi occupation and "the war on terror" is correct.

Michael Howard must rue the day that his predecessor, Iain Duncan Smith, idiotically gave unqualified support for the misguided adventure in Iraq. Many Conservative voters were against the war, and senior backbenchers such as Ken Clarke, Douglas Hogg and Sir Peter Tapsell warned their front bench of the dangers in 2002. In fact, it is quite possible that one of the reasons IDS fared so badly was due to his failure to provide any opposition to the war. Middle-class Tory voters were as likely as anyone to be among the protesters in February last year.

Voters here are just as entitled to say to the politicians, as they did in Spain, that Mr Bush and Mr Blair have put them in greater danger as a consequence of their actions. It may be - as some have outrageously accused voters in Spain - caving into terrorism, but it may also be perfectly logical.

Michael Howard's difficulty is in extricating himself from Mr Blair and Mr Bush's failed policies while avoiding the charge of opportunism. It may be impossible. He still maintains, wrongly in my view, that the Tories were right to back the war. But if there is a case, as the new Spanish leader suggests, for Bush and Blair to reflect on their mistakes, there is just as good a case for Mr Howard to do the same. If the British people come to the conclusion, in the wake of events in Spain and the possible consequences for Mr Bush in November, that they are not prepared to put themselves in the front line of terrorism, they are entitled to an alternative to Mr Blair's government as well.

A possible way out might be for the Tories to signal a clear commitment to an early withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. At some point, along with the Americans, they will return home in ignominy anyway. My grandfather, who served in Baghdad in the First World War, always reminded me that the British were doomed to disaster there if ever they returned. "Bring home our boys" will also grow as an election demand in the US during the coming months, and further terrorist atrocities will encourage these chants. It is all very well saying "we must not give in to terrorism", but democracy also means accepting that voters have the right to opt out of unwinnable wars.

In the short term, Mr Howard should consider giving formal opportunities to Ken Clarke and Sir Malcolm Rifkind (although not yet back in Parliament); they both have a greater credibility than many on his front bench to sound the necessary retreat from the Government's failed policy of engagement with Mr Bush. They should be made official spokesmen, with the authority of the leadership, to match the sort of effective criticism currently provided by the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesman, Sir Menzies Campbell.

Indeed, if Mr Howard does not sound the Iraq retreat, those Liberal Democrats may still have some electoral shocks for both him and Mr Blair.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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