How war can seriously damage a Prime Minister

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Mr Tony Blair's campaign medals already include Gulf II and Serbia (Air). They may shortly be joined by Kosovo. The rumour in Whitehall is that the last two decorations will be consolidated in the Nato Millennium Medal, which will be awarded to all non-combatants, including Mr Robin Cook, Mr George Robertson and my old friend the Attorney-General, Mr John Morris, though not to Mr Gordon Brown. He is certainly a non-combatant too, but is considered to have placed himself so far away from the action in some Treasury bunker as to make any award to him insulting to his more belligerent colleagues.

Of these, the position of Mr Morris is perhaps the most interesting. In her conduct of the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher placed a similar reliance on her own Mr Attorney, Sir Michael Havers. Sir Michael could later be found confiding the deliberations of the war cabinet to anyone with the price of a drink on him at the Garrick Club bar.

Mr Morris is not so gregarious or so indiscreet. His function, as explained by Mr Robertson, is odd all the same. If he is carrying it out conscientiously, it is a wonder he has any time to eat, wash or shave, still less attend to his domestic legal duties. It is to cast a lawyerly eye on Nato's prospective air targets and pronounce on whether they are legitimate or not.

I wonder whether he was asked about the attack on Mr Slobodan Milosevic's house and, if so, what he said. He might have found it difficult to arrive at any opinion, because at the relevant time he was attending a legal conference in sunnier climes. Still, Mr Morris's views, when he is in a position to convey any, are perhaps worth more than most, not so much because he is a lawyer - there are plenty of them around - as because he did his national service as an officer in the Welch Regiment and is accordingly the sole senior member of the present administration with military experience of any description.

Certainly Mr Blair has no such experience. Indeed, at Fettes College he refused to join the cadet corps and was allowed to do good works instead. That has not prevented him from becoming our most bellicose prime minister of the entire post-war period, including not merely Margaret Thatcher but Winston Churchill as well.

C R Attlee, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan all fought in France in the First World War, where Eden won the Military Cross. The other two might have done the same if the regimental rationing system for the decoration in question had worked in their favour. The one disappointment in his life about which Anthony Crosland was bitter, by the way, was not that he failed to become Chancellor but that he had not been awarded the MC.

Attlee led us into one war, in Korea; Eden into another, at Suez. Lady Thatcher fought in the Falklands and prepared for another war, Gulf I. Mr John Major completed her preparations. Churchill took us out of Korea and Macmillan left Suez. Harold Wilson kept us out of Vietnam, though Lyndon Johnson tried hard to get him to dispatch a token division. Mr Blair is the sole prime minister with two wars to his name, and after only two years: Gulf II and, now, Yugoslavia.

He has staked a good deal on the outcome. Virtually alone among Western leaders, he is calling vociferously for unconditional surrender by Mr Milosevic. It is as if the Serbian dictator had reoccupied the Rhineland, annexed Czechoslovakia, invaded Poland, attacked this country and conquered France, and was about to move against Russia. Mr Bill Clinton seems to follow breathlessly in his wake, like Franklin Roosevelt after Churchill.

Indeed, Mrs Madeleine Albright had to issue a correction last week after Mr Blair was reported saying that the war would not be over until Mr Milosevic had been brought down. Mrs Albright replied sharply (or it was said on her behalf) that such an outcome formed no part of Nato policy. No 10 then altered what Mr Blair was supposed to have said. Mr Milosevic must stop his present policies: that was what Mr Blair meant, or so we were informed.

Even so, the aims of the alliance, as stated by Mr Blair and his government colleagues, change from week to week, sometimes from day to day. We began by bombing Serbia to try to compel that country to accept the Rambouillet agreement. In so doing - forcing another country to accept an agreement to which it was not a party - we were in breach of the Geneva Convention. No matter. On 23 March Mr Blair talked about Kosovo as a continuing part of the Yugoslav federation, with Nato forces present as observers. This is what Mr Milosevic refused to accept. Mr Blair mentioned a referendum after three years about Kosovan independence. Why, he might just as well have been discussing the future of devolution in Wales.

The accusation about which Mr Blair has so far proved most sensitive is that he and Mr Clinton caused the refugee crisis. Not so, say Mr Alastair Campbell, his acolytes and his imitators: Mr Milosevic caused it. As Francis Bacon wrote, it were infinite to judge causes, or the causes of causes. What is indisputable is that Mr Milosevic's cruel persecution of the Kosovo Albanians accelerated steeply after the start of the bombing and that the rate of acceleration has increased since. And what is equally manifest is that Nato went into the war to save the Kosovo Albanians. This the alliance has signally failed to accomplish: quite the reverse in fact.

The war aim has accordingly changed. The latest one, as I write (for it may change again), is that the Kosovo Albanians are to be restored to their former habitations, burnt down as most of them unfortunately are, there to reside in peace and tranquillity alongside those Serbs who may wish to join them.

Mr Blair's experience in Northern Ireland must have taught him that, whatever politicians can accomplish, what they cannot do is compel people to love one another. In 1969 Wilson and James Callaghan put troops into that country to protect the Roman Catholic population of Belfast. They are still there, though it is the Catholics who, by and large, have long wanted them to leave. In 2030 we may find that the Mohammedans want us to remove ourselves from Kosovo.

If there was a consensus to last week's troubled debate, it was that a vote in the Commons should precede any commitment of troops to Kosovo. As Mr Tony Benn has often had occasion to point out, under our monarchical constitution, on to which a democratic covering has been welded, only the Queen can declare war. But then, we are apparently not at war either; or not yet. We may feel we are when the fragile coffins are loaded off the big aeroplanes. The body bags may come later, when we have run out of the makeshift coffins.

It may be, however, that what will turn the voters against the war will be not so much the assault on their emotions as on their wallets. Two weeks ago I brought up the cost of the war. The question has since been taken up by several papers and magazines. If Mr Blair's bet is ever called in, the beneficiary may be Mr Brown. Mr Blair may end up finding that, as the poet says, he has had no end of a lesson, which will have done him - though not necessarily the rest of us - no end of good.

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