Tony Blair: This election is about more than the war - or me

I believe my decision to go to war was in the best interests of this country
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The Independent Online

This newspaper and many of its readers have strong disagreements with me over Iraq. You have made your opposition to military action clear from the very start. These differences will, understandably, form an important part of the judgement of some people when deciding how to cast their vote on Thursday. I recognise this.

This newspaper and many of its readers have strong disagreements with me over Iraq. You have made your opposition to military action clear from the very start. These differences will, understandably, form an important part of the judgement of some people when deciding how to cast their vote on Thursday. I recognise this.

I realise that many people believe military action was wrong. I can't, however, apologise for what we did because I believed the decision I took was in the best interests of this country, that region and the wider world - and I still do. I had a choice, faced with the knowledge of his long defiance of his UN obligations, to leave Saddam in power or to remove him. I chose to remove him. In this case, there was no middle way. We now know, after a week of ferocious Tory attacks on my judgement and integrity, that Michael Howard would have followed exactly the same course of action but would have done it more quickly. Charles Kennedy has made clear he would have taken the other route.

Such a decision would, inevitably, have left Saddam stronger than ever and the international community weaker. But I accept nonetheless that many believe this is what we should have done. What you can't suggest, as Charles Kennedy did last week, was that somehow Saddam's dictatorship would simply have crumbled if the inspectors had been there because the people would have risen up. It would not have happened.

Of course, the decisions we took on Iraq must be debated thoroughly during this election campaign. But the Tories and Liberal Democrats want to keep the focus on Iraq for another reason. They want to frustrate Labour's attempts to talk about the other issues that matter and which, because they focus on the important decisions still to be made rather than those already taken, will decide the future direction of our country. On these issues, the Tories and Liberal-Democrats have very little to say.

This election is not, whatever Charles Kennedy says, just about Iraq or even me as Prime Minister although I accept both are important. It is about which party forms the Government and the future direction of the country. It is a choice between competing parties and their different plans for the economy, health, education and the other important areas which will directly impact on you and your family.

I believe we have overwhelmingly won these arguments and so, perhaps more surprisingly, do the Tories. This vacuum at the heart of their campaign does not, however, worry them. They are turning it to their advantage in a cynical strategy imported - along with their campaign strategists - from Australia. It is the back-door strategy to power.

As you will see over the next few days, the idea that Michael Howard might become the next prime minister will be downplayed furiously by the Tories. Instead their campaign will be underpinned by the suggestion that the Tories can not win and will urge disgruntled Labour voters to send a message to me expressing their dissatisfaction. I can imagine that it might prove very tempting to some Independent readers.

But, at the same time and beneath the national radar, the Conservatives are running a ruthlessly targeted campaign in key marginal seats. Their intent is to maximise their own turn out on Thursday while hoping their down strategy will help persuade Labour voters to stay at home or risk a protest vote for the Liberal Democrats in the mistaken belief that the Tories can not win.

All this explains why the national polls do not matter and why The Independent was wrong to dismiss our warnings that votes for the Liberal Democrats could lead to a Tory government. The paper's analysis was based on a rather outdated view of uniform national swings. Elections, in a three-party contest and with a more sophisticated and better informed public, are no longer that simple.

Labour held onto almost all our marginals in 2001, despite a national swing to the Conservatives, because we did better in these seats. It is a lesson the Tories have learnt. They know that if they can keep the vote strong in the battleground seats and persuade just one in 10 of our supporters that they can stage a painless protest about this Government without the Tories returning to power, they could get back in through the back door.

I suspect, no matter how fed up some Independent readers are with me and this Government, a Tory administration led by Michael Howard is not something the majority want.

Their policies remain flawed, damaging and dangerous and would put at risk our hard-won economic strength with all the danger that has for jobs and mortgages.

That is why there is a huge amount at stake on 5 May. It is a straight choice. Only Labour or the Conservatives are going to form the next government. When you cast your vote - particularly in a Labour/Tory marginal - I hope you keep this in mind.

If you don't, the danger is that you will find you have a local Tory MP and the country will wake up on 6 May to the prospect of Michael Howard on his way to Downing Street.

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