Steve Richards: The real reasons why Blair went to war

To him, the domestic calculations pointed overwhelmingly in one direction

Friday 27 November 2009 01:00

If the latest Iraq inquiry wants to find out why Tony Blair took us to war it need question only four witnesses. They are Iain Duncan Smith, Rupert Murdoch, Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot. It could all be over in a single day or in the space of one newspaper column.

Blair's guiding political philosophy as a leader and Prime Minister was a simple one. At all times he sought to purge Labour of its vote-losing past and to show that he was a different leader to his predecessors. Revealingly, when he stood outside Number 10 for the first time as Prime Minister in 1997, he offered no vision for the country, but declared that he had been elected as New Labour and would govern as New Labour. From the beginning he was obsessed with reassuring his new vast coalition of support that once he had won he would not revert to being a so called "old Labour" leader.

Partly that meant no longer being perceived as "soft" on defence and "anti-American". In the 1980s, when Labour was slaughtered at elections under the leaderships of Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, the party was seen as both. Kinnock was humiliated during a visit to Washington when President Reagan saw him for only a few minutes. Blair's guiding philosophy was never going to allow him to be placed in such a position, whoever was President.

Shortly after the 2001 election, before 11 September, Blair invited the former cabinet minister, Chris Smith into Number 10 for a cup of tea (Blair was good at charming those he had sacked). To Smith's surprise he told him that one of his key second-term objectives was to show that a Labour PM could work as closely with a Republican president as he could with a Democrat. His other main objective was to join the euro. As I will go on to explain the two were directly connected in relation to what followed in Iraq.

In the autumn of 2001 Iain Duncan Smith became leader of the Conservative party. Blair was neurotically alert to any danger posed by a Conservative leader, a deep rooted and paralysing consequence of being slaughtered by the Conservatives in the 1980s. Duncan Smith had close links with the Republican administration in Washington and some newspapers noted that IDS might be Britain's key link with Washington now that Blair had lost his close friend, Clinton. Blair was determined not to give up such space to a Tory leader.

When the Washington administration started to twitch about Saddam, Duncan Smith was gung ho. He stated unequivocally that the Conservatives would support military action even if Bush did not seek UN authorisation. If the Tories had opposed Iraq from the beginning, Blair's calculations would have been very different. In the light of Duncan Smith's ardent support for war he was never going to risk allowing the Tories to be the pro-American, pro-war party and Labour to return to its 1980s position of being "soft" on defence and anti-American.

The political calculation was therefore straightforward. As far as Blair was concerned, if he had opposed the war he would have destroyed the New Labour coalition and given up vital ground to the Conservatives. Rupert Murdoch's newspapers were a key factor in this respect. Murdoch was a passionate supporter of Bush's foreign policy. Blair knew Murdoch would have switched his newspapers' support to the Conservatives if he had sided with the loathed Chirac and Shroeder in opposition to the war. In its 2005 election endorsement for Labour The Sun backed Blair for a single reason – his support for Bush in Iraq.

Blair took what seemed the least risky route in terms of domestic politics and backed Bush in alliance with most newspapers and the Conservative party. As a bonus he was almost universally praised for his courage in taking the safest course. Blair tried to square various circles by persuading Bush to take the UN route. This was the one example where Blair exerted influence on Bush. Without Blair, Bush would not have bothered with the UN at all. But this move was negotiated at a massive cost. Blair assured Bush that he would be with him if the UN did not deliver, confident that in the end the war would enhance his authority rather than diminish it.

In his diaries Chris Mullin reports a conversation with Blair's close ally, Alan Milburn, during the build up to war. Milburn told Mullin that after the conflict Blair would be so strong that he would sack Gordon Brown as Chancellor. In Britain war leaders tend to be popular and there was much talk in the immediate aftermath of a "Baghdad Bounce" for Blair.

Blair led the domestic coalition of support that he felt most comfortable with, partly because he thought he would challenge it once: when he took up what he regarded as his historic mission to join the euro. It was in this context that he was uncharacteristically relaxed about media attacks that portrayed him as "Bush's poodle". He told allies: "At least they wont be able to accuse me of being anti-American when we have the referendum on the euro".

Shortly after the war, in the summer of 2003, Blair turned his mind to the euro and was livid when Brown as Chancellor placed impossible obstacles in front of him. He wanted to prove then that he was as much a pro-European as he was pro-Bush.

Once the strategic decision was taken, that a new Labour PM would stand shoulder to shoulder with a Republican President, the course was set. After a decision of this magnitude has been made it cannot be unmade, and the challenge for Blair became putting the case. No one had to be convinced by it. The cabinet and most MPs chose to be so. As for Blair, he had a convenient genius for taking an expedient, pragmatic course and then believing in the direction of travel with an evangelists' zeal.

What of the substance of the issue? We know the answer to that. Recently Cherie Blair described her husband's decision on Iraq as a "close call". The substance of the issue was finely balanced, as it was for many, but as far as Blair was concerned the domestic calculations pointed overwhelmingly in one direction. They have not been considered by the succession of inquiries into why Britain went to war.

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