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No Mr Blair, Iraq will not just go away


A dense maze surrounds Tony Blair and it is called the Iraq war. It holds the Prime Minister at its centre, trapping him, confusing him and disorienting him so much that there seems no prospect of immediate escape. The escape he clearly seeks is to be able to choose which agenda he wants us to follow. But before that kind of freedom is his, he needs to find out first how to free himself from the labyrinth that the fall-out from last year’s war in Iraq is still creating. And so far the solution to the puzzle, his escape, is eluding the Prime Minister. This weekend’s Scottish Labour conference in Inverness was supposed to have been given its energy and sense of purpose by Blair’s visit on Friday. This was an opportunity to focus on the future; prepare for even more government; and pretend, as all such gatherings do, that the sum of your party’s political achievements far outweigh the baggage of failures.

Labour in Scotland could thus prepare to cheer the continuing achievements of devolution, an economy doing better than its European neighbours, public services where difficult reform and boosted investment are somehow managing to progress to notable improvements. This was the weekend where Labour faithful would come and be prepared to cheer for themselves, the party of government with more government waiting round next year’s corner. Instead, the Prime Minister has found himself caught yet again in the Iraq maze, making himself look even more foolish than usual by pretending to ignore the reality that he remains caught and imprisoned by a political debate he simply cannot escape from.

The imprisonment began as we waited for the first weapons of mass destruction to turn up after the formal end to the conflict. We are still waiting, but we no longer expect anything because anyone who knows anything about post-war Iraq (and indeed pre-war Iraq) has said no WMD will be found, and that includes the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group. Blair, however, still lives in hope and said as much in his monthly press conference last week when he said we must wait for the final report of the ISG.

He needs to stop treating us like children, telling us to shut up and go to bed because in the morning Father Christmas will deliver a special present: a lovely big box with all the evidence of Iraq’s WMD you could ever have wished for! And then all of Britain can play happy families again and Blair’s long nightmare will be over.

Blair wanted this weekend in Inverness, and indeed Labour’s gathering in Manchester next month, to be the springboard to a return to domestic politics. But that will remain blocked until he answers the question of whether or not Britain bugged the Security Council of the United Nations, bugged its secretary general, Kofi Annan, and bugged weapons inspectors and their chiefs. It no longer seems a matter of who we bugged, more a case of who we – and our US partners – didn’t bug. And rather than admit these are serious matters requiring the convention of silence to be laid aside in favour of honest declarations, we are instead treated to the hideous spectacle of Blair pretending in his Inverness speech that there is nothing to answer, no problem.

The PM will, however, know he is trapped. He will know it is not enough to dismiss all of this as merely the work of an imagined alliance of Labour personnel happier to be in opposition than in government. His closest political chum, Peter Mandelson, started the current Downing Street paranoia programme against the Return of the Tory Bogeymen two weeks ago and Blair’s Inverness address was almost word-for-word Mandelson. Again he treats us like children: vote Labour or prepare for the Tory bogeyman. What a basis for the right to a third term in office.

Why will we not shut up about the war? Because underlying everything in British politics is that we expect to be able to trust our leaders, and not be misled on the reasons for going to war. The majority opinion in Britain was against going to war, yet Blair said: “Trust me on Iraq”. It was par excellence Blair’s war, Blair’s decision to back George W Bush, Blair’s decision to make the casus belli Saddam’s WMD and his 45-minute threat to British interests and troops. And it remains Blair’s mistake. And until there is some admission that he got it wrong, some admission of political fallibility, the unanswered questions on Iraq will keep coming, perhaps all the way to the polling booths at the next general election. Blair and his people claim “ordinary people” are not interested in all this Iraq/WMD stuff. Maybe so, but they also do not like it when they are comprehensively misled or worse, lied to. Then they do care, and unless Blair wakes up to this, he will be punished at the next election. And he alone, no not the Tories, will be to blame for that outcome.

29 February 2004