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July 18 2004

Has The Butler Knifed Blair?

The PM cannot shake off Iraq. Lord Butler’s inquiry was meant to draw a line in the sand. Instead it forensically detailed how we were misled into war. Will he live to survive what Butler saw?
By Westminster Editor James Cusick

Even if Tony Blair hasn’t come out on top at the end of one of his toughest weeks, what continues to confound his admirers and critics is his ability to survive, against any odds.

After the damning contents of Lord Butler’s report, after the by-election loss of one of Labour’s safest seats and the nail-bitingly narrow victory in another, and now calls for Blair’s blood amid claims that Downing Street pre-judged what intelligence Lord Hutton was allowed to know about, a majority of constituency chairmen in Labour’s marginal seats say that, even though a lot is wrong with Blair, they have no choice but to stick with him.

This week Blair’s temporarily becalmed public relations machine will be re-booted to mount a quiet celebration of his 10 years as Labour leader. The message from the celebrations, and an expected reshuffle of the Cabinet also to be announced this week, will be that Blair has the vision, the stamina and the support to re-energise himself over the summer recess. He will then re- invigorate his party’s activists during September’s annual conference in Brighton, going on to effectively attempt a rewrite of the successes of his second term in office. This will minimise the war and maximise, as one party official claims, “almost anything else but Iraq” in the run-up to the next general election and an almost guaranteed third term .

That is the game plan. But many of his detractors still can’t believe Blair is able to even consider such a script given the lengthy list of errors of omission and commission which Butler identified.

Geraldine Smith, the Labour MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, had initially given her backing in the Commons for Blair’s war. Smith is not on the list of the party’s serial dissenters. She is not regarded as being part of the line up of the “usual suspects”. Yet she is angry that Blair has survived.

Smith wrote in yesterday’s Guardian that it was difficult to believe that when she watched Blair’s response to Butler in the Commons that: “I was watching a man respond to a document that catalogued a host of shortcomings in his government’s management and presentation of the war with Iraq.”

Smith, summarising Butler, said his report concluded that “parliament, the people and the press had all been misled”. But they had curiously not been lied to, according to Butler.

Blair’s response in the Commons focused on minimising the importance and relevance of the dossier. He glossed over the reality that it was the BBC’s criticism of one element in the dossier – Andrew Gilligan’s assertion that the “45 minute” claim had been “sexed up” – which effectively launched the uncivil war between the corporation and the government, and led indirectly to the death of the Ministry of Defence weapons scientist, Dr David Kelly, and which had created the momentum for the government relenting and announcing Lord Hutton’s investigation.

Blair told the Commons that the September dossier – left in tatters by the Butler – was not in itself the “case for war”. The war had been necessary, said Blair, to enforce the United Nations’ will.

Last week, Blair never touched on his assurances throughout the pre-war period that a second UN resolution was necessary and would eventually be won through UK and US persuasion. And he of course never ventured into the closed territory of his discussions with George Bush in September 2002 which laid the firm foundation of the war with Iraq.

Butler’s demolition of the intelligence framework merely confirmed what US and UK critics of both governments had been suggesting: that the decision to go to war had already been made between the two leaders, that Bush was satisfied with his administration’s goal of regime change, and that all efforts would be made to deliver to the UK government the excuse Blair needed to convince parliament, namely: Saddam’s threat to UK security from a developed and developing programme of chemical, biological and nuclear weaponry.

It was Blair’s apparent shrugging off of all criticism in Butler’s report that finally broke Geraldine Smith. “It was at that moment that I realised why the Prime Minister was so relaxed. He just didn’t get it. He didn’t see the significance of what Butler had revealed. He told us he had acted in good faith and out of conviction and that he took full responsibility for the mistakes he made. He really thought that the issue of trust could now be laid to rest.”

But Smith, other Labour MPs, party activists, the parliamentary ranks of the Liberal Democrats, anti-war Tories such as Ken Clarke, and the anti-war movement won’t lay the matter to rest. As one source in Labour’s London head quarters said last week: “We know we will have to fight the next general election with the fallout from Iraq still ever-present. It remains a problem that the party will have to deal with, but it is not an over-riding cause for concern.”

That is a curious confidence. For although the health secretary and Downing Street firefighter, Dr John Reid, called the result of the two by-elections last week “a one-one draw”, his football score simile doesn’t add up. Taking the votes cast over the two constituencies, Labour between their 2001 showing and last Thursday managed to haemorrhage 23,788 votes. The Liberal Democrats increased their vote by 7875. That puts nearly 32,000 votes between the two parties. If that is a score draw, the PhD- holding Reid badly needs a revision course in basic arithmetic.

The war was evidently a factor in both the Midlands constituencies. The Labour vote was hammered and Charles Kennedy’s consistent anti-war line was clearly rewarded. Kennedy therefore has little choice but to keep pushing on any door which might swing back in the face of the Prime Minister.

A revelation only tangentially touched on in the Butler Report – that Downing Street chose not to disclose that MI6 had withdrawn a crucial piece of intelligence on Iraq in the month before the beginning of the Hutton Inquiry, considering it not to be “relevant” to the inquiry – was rounded on by Kennedy.

The Liberal Democrat leader said the unilateral action showed the need for a further inquiry into the political decisions that led to war. “Unless you have a proper public inquiry … which can call political players to proper account, you will not satisfy public opinion.” Stating what he knows to be obvious, Kennedy said: “Iraq remains a predominant concern.”

Reid (without the power to grant or deny Kennedy’s wishes) rejected the call, saying that anyone who wanted a fifth inquiry to add to the four that had already cleared the Prime Minister of all “allegations of bad faith or bad judgement” was merely “hunting for someone to blame”.

Yet the hunt continues and will continue in the Commons this week when Kennedy will want an explanation from the government about why information was withheld from Hutton.

Kennedy may find some support on the Labour benches. Eric Illsley, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, agrees that the decision to withdraw intelligence should have been made public.

So where does Blair go to for support? Strangely he can look to Washington, and not just among the ranks of his Republican allies. The Democrats made the first steps towards showing that they are capable of working with Blair regardless of his obvious allegiance to Bush.

John Kerry and his presidential running mate, John Edwards, praised Blair and his style of leadership, hailing Blair’s acceptance of responsibility for intelligence failures over Iraq and obviously attacking Bush for failing to confess to the same after the recent report by the US Senate on the CIA’s failings. But Edwards may have missed the point. Blair doesn’t do sorry. Blair doesn’t run.

But although Blair always survives, will his diminishing ability to look trustworthy continue to cause problems? Although the war may feature less than health and education come the general election in next May or June, all the Labour Party’s manifesto promises will be filtered through Blair’s lack of trust.

If Downing Street is banking on the electorate not being able to make the distinction between being lied to and being misled by omission, Smith believes they are deluding themselves. Her conclusion? “The Prime Minister is fatally damaged. The time has come for him to go with honour and dignity at a time of his choosing. The alternative is to wait until his enemies drag him down or the electorate makes the decision for him.”

But Blair shows no signs of running, and his party, looking at a guaranteed third term, shows no signs of wanting to dump him. In a recent survey of Labour’s 27 most marginal seats, only two chairmen of the CLPs said they thought Blair should stand down for Gordon Brown. Then there are the constituency chairmen who really believe that getting power, and holding on to it, is something even a struggling Labour government shouldn’t forget. One CLP chair said: “Tony Blair gets to the parts of [the] white middle class in a way that Gordon Brown and nobody else does. It would be insane to get rid of Tony Blair … Brown appeals to the base Labour vote, but that is not what we are after.”

Butler may have damaged Blair’s credibility. Butler may have damaged Blair’s style of government. And Butler may have damaged Blair’s reputation. But Butler may not have damaged Blair’s chances of a third term in office. Inside Labour ranks, many, therefore, believe there has been no damage done at all.

18 July 2004