This is no time for Mr Blair to cut and run

Click to follow

Another week of distractions and resignations. The question of whether or not the Daily Mirror's photographs were fakes distracted attention from documented cases of British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. The short-lived defence of Piers Morgan, the newspaper's editor, that "the pictures accurately illustrated the reality", was deplorable. Not simply because readers are entitled to know that pictures are what they purport to be, but because it allowed the Queen's Lancashire Regiment and the Government to evade responsibility for real torture.

Another week of distractions and resignations. The question of whether or not the Daily Mirror's photographs were fakes distracted attention from documented cases of British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. The short-lived defence of Piers Morgan, the newspaper's editor, that "the pictures accurately illustrated the reality", was deplorable. Not simply because readers are entitled to know that pictures are what they purport to be, but because it allowed the Queen's Lancashire Regiment and the Government to evade responsibility for real torture.

The regiment and the British armed forces as a whole have trumpeted their "vindication" and will no doubt use the Daily Mirror's embarrassment to deflect criticism of acknowledged misconduct. Several soldiers will be charged in the next few days with crimes, including those related to the death in custody of Baha Mousa, the Iraqi hotel receptionist, first reported in our pages in January. But Mr Morgan has ensured that the impression that will be left with much of the British public is of soldiers traduced.

It is all too reminiscent of the way the debate over the reasons why Britain went to war in Iraq was diverted into a huge row with the BBC over the wording of a correspondent's reports on the BBC's Today programme. On that occasion, too, the media organisation bore some responsibility for the distraction from the substance, namely the intelligence failure over Saddam Hussein's weapons programmes.

What is striking, however, is that the editor of the Daily Mirror and the chairman and director-general of the BBC all lost their jobs. Two of them, Piers Morgan and Greg Dyke, were sacked; they did not voluntarily accept responsibility. But both the Daily Mirror and the BBC enforced the principle of accountability for mistakes.

The contrast with the behaviour of the two governments that led the illegal and unjustified invasion of Iraq is stark. George Tenet, who described the evidence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction as a "slam dunk", is still director of the CIA. Donald Rumsfeld is still US Secretary of Defense, an unimpressive apology deemed enough to atone for the destruction of what was left of the moral authority of the occupation. John Scarlett, who presided over the misleading of the country over Saddam's weapons, has been promoted to head of MI6. And Geoff Hoon, who has never seen documents it would be inconvenient to see, is still Secretary of State for Defence.

Which brings us to the other important resignation that was discussed all last week, that of Tony Blair. Clearly, as Labour canvassers are reporting back to party headquarters, Iraq is hurting the Prime Minister in the place where democratic accountability really pinches: on the doorstep. Even the Deputy Prime Minister, it seems, thinks that it may soon be time to switch to a leader not so strongly identified with the Iraq policy.

Some readers may be surprised that The Independent on Sunday does not share this view. With almost the sole exception of his decision to go to war, Mr Blair has been a highly effective, socially just prime minister. His terrible decision was made and endorsed by the House of Commons more than a year ago. But he cannot be allowed simply to "move on". He has a duty now to show real leadership in order to save his job, Britain's reputation and the people of Iraq. That means pushing for early elections in Iraq with as much UN involvement as possible. And it means accepting responsibility for past policy failures. That must include the illegal hooding of prisoners by British soldiers as well as the (so far) small number of cases of more violent abuse being investigated and brought to justice. Mr Blair should accept that errors have been made, but this needs to be dramatised in a way that is visible to the world. That must mean that those responsible lose their jobs, up to and including Mr Hoon.

Mr Blair is still "the best Prime Minister we have", to quote RA Butler's ambiguous endorsement of Anthony Eden in 1955, but if he does not begin to make amends for his mistakes over Iraq, it is increasingly clear that the Labour Party will treat him with a ruthless lack of pity.

Comments