The Prime Minister must leave his bunker

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The fate of Kenneth Bigley is a vivid reminder that the Prime Minister's policy in Iraq is a terrible failure. No one quarrels with Tony Blair's refusal to concede to the hostage-takers' demands. No responsible leader could allow such tactics to succeed. It could, however, be argued that the Tawhid and Jihad group has already succeeded in a secondary objective - that of exposing both Iyad Allawi, the Iraqi interim Prime Minister, and Mr Blair as puppets of the US. The Iraqi and British governments seemed willing to countenance the "coincidental" release of Rihab Rashid Taha, the Iraqi weapons scientist, until the US forced them to discountenance it. But on the primary issue of yielding to extortion, Mr Blair is right to stand firm. In this narrow respect, the "Thatcherisation" of his image, revealed by our opinion poll today, does him no harm. Inflexibility, in the sense of resolution, is an important quality of leadership.

The fate of Kenneth Bigley is a vivid reminder that the Prime Minister's policy in Iraq is a terrible failure. No one quarrels with Tony Blair's refusal to concede to the hostage-takers' demands. No responsible leader could allow such tactics to succeed. It could, however, be argued that the Tawhid and Jihad group has already succeeded in a secondary objective - that of exposing both Iyad Allawi, the Iraqi interim Prime Minister, and Mr Blair as puppets of the US. The Iraqi and British governments seemed willing to countenance the "coincidental" release of Rihab Rashid Taha, the Iraqi weapons scientist, until the US forced them to discountenance it. But on the primary issue of yielding to extortion, Mr Blair is right to stand firm. In this narrow respect, the "Thatcherisation" of his image, revealed by our opinion poll today, does him no harm. Inflexibility, in the sense of resolution, is an important quality of leadership.

The other side of Mr Blair's image as an unbending autocrat, however, is potentially damaging to him, his party and indeed to the integrity of British politics. The problem is that strength and conviction can be counter-productive unless they are allied to sound judgement about the long-term consequences of decisions. Remarkably, Mr Blair is regarded as "too inflexible" by 57 per cent of the public, a far higher proportion than ever said the same of Margaret Thatcher. The views of that 57 per cent majority are justified by his conduct over Iraq. He was inflexible in his decision to cleave to US foreign policy, come what may. That involved him in all manner of casuistry, as he tried to pretend that the United Nations had "nearly" authorised the use of force, and would have done had it not been for the "unreasonable" French. He was inflexible in his insistence that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction would be found, and has never admitted that the intelligence on this was wrong. And he is inflexible in his insistence that everything in Iraq is going according to plan - and that the insurgency, hostage-taking and suicide bombings have arrived, as if from another planet and for reasons unconnected with the US-British invasion of March 2003.

He displays the inflexibility of the lawyer: never concede anything until you are absolutely forced to do so. That may be a sound courtroom tactic, but it is bad politics. There is a difference between firm resolution and brittle denial. No wonder so many think that he looks out of touch when he starts to talk of a "second" war in Iraq, of which Mr Bigley is an unexpectedly prominent victim, as if it had nothing to do with the first. Mr Bigley's fate is a heart-rending one. It is a reminder, for those tempted to accept the Prime Minister's legalistic construction of reality, that hundreds of Iraqis have been taken hostage, and thousands have died as a direct and largely foreseeable consequence of the policy Mr Blair supported.

The Prime Minister faces an important choice this week. He can seal himself more securely in the rhetorical bunker in which he is holed up, following Mrs Thatcher in mistaking stubbornness for resolution and isolation for the loneliness of leadership. Or he could show that he genuinely understands the anxieties about Iraq by accepting that it has not worked out as he had hoped. The discordant tuning-up for this week's conference does not inspire confidence that he will make the right choice. Peter Hain's slip of the tongue, that Iraq was "just a fringe issue", however quickly retracted, revealed a Freudian glimpse of the conference-management strategy. The intense wrangling to try to avoid a debate on Iraq, and then to try to fix the motion to minimise the risk of defeat for the government line, suggests that the Prime Minister would rather rig the debate than confront the arguments head-on. As is often the case, his attempt to present himself as someone who will take on his critics directly and fearlessly is undermined by cynical devices to avoid doing precisely that.

The Tony Blair who emerges from this conference will probably win a general election next year. But, depending on how he renegotiates his relationship with his party and the country, he could either stagger across the finishing line as the last gasp of his fading leadership, or he could secure a mandate that would allow him to hand over with dignity.

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