The tragic error of Tony Blair
Published in: Daily Mail
On and on it goes. Tony Blair's difficulties over Iraq just won't die down. Yesterday, the former UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix claimed Britain and the US had 'exaggerated the importance' of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, while Robin Cook managed to attack both the Prime Minister and the intelligence services for being misleading.
By now, most people are glassy-eyed at all this claim and counter-claim about who said what to whom. Who but a few anoraks and obsessives is following all this in detail?
Nevertheless, great damage has been done to the Prime Minister. Half the country thinks he misled the public and should step down. Despite desperately trying to row back to domestic issues, HMS Blair is badly holed and listing, with the Tory leader, Michael Howard, snapping his jaws as he scents political blood in the water.
What is so striking is the extraordinarily poor fist the government is making of defending itself. The defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, sounded particularly feeble on radio last week. Mr Blair makes statement after statement and yet the impression merely mounts of incompetence, amateurishness and disarray.
For many people, the reason is clear. They think the Prime Minister misled the country about the threat posed by Saddam and the urgency of dealing with him.
Personally, I do not share that opinion. I thought the war was justified, and I also believe that Mr Blair has told the truth throughout. I think that is borne out by looking carefully at what has actually been said -which has been misinterpreted by many observers, and in my view, badly misrepresented by the BBC - and by trying to apply to it some logic and common sense.
But opponents of the war keep moving the goalposts. Mr Cook's latest claims - that the Prime Minister ignored the intelligence agencies' words of caution and that these same agencies kept him in the dark - illustrate how even self-cancelling arguments are being used in the attempt to make the facts fit the preconceived conclusion that the war was wrong.
So why has Mr Blair been so hamstrung? The answer has far wider ramifications than Iraq, and the fact that most people have neither the time nor energy to read up the facts behind the headlines. The Prime Minister's acute difficulty goes to the heart of his manner of government, and cruelly lays bare its most fundamental failing.
This is nothing less than an absence of leadership. Leadership means sticking to decisions because they are right, even if public opinion does not agree. But Mr Blair is desperate for people to approve of what he is doing. So he won't do anything that might upset the public. That's why, where problems are difficult and opinion is divided - health, education, family, drugs - he ducks the hard decisions and takes refuge instead in fudge.
Such insecurity means he has to get people to agree. His problem, however, was that the British public did not agree with the case for war against Iraq. Despite the impression which is now given, that case was not made on the basis of intelligence, let alone the wretched 45-minute claim. It was made - as the government repeatedly said - because Saddam was in breach of UN resolutions requiring him to prove he had dismantled his WMD programme.
But because the public disagreed, Mr Blair made a fatal error. He tried to persuade people by using intelligence assessments. But intelligence should never be used as part of political debate. Using it in this way endangers a process that above all else depends for its effectiveness on secrecy. It compromises its independence and reputation by bringing it dangerously close to political influence.
Above all, intelligence assessments require informed judgment. But the public cannot form such a judgment. We can glimpse only fragments of the covert picture; and since the world of intelligence is essentially one of duplicity, we have no way of knowing who or what to believe.
The outcome has been a lethal open season of claim and counter-claim, in which partial, out of context or otherwise misleadingly presented gobbets of intelligence have been laid before a bemused public which is in no position to judge them.
We elect a parliament and a government to make such judgments on our behalf. A Prime Minister displaying proper qualities of leadership would have said the buck stops with me and the intelligence stays secret. Instead, Mr Blair invited the public to second-guess his own judgment - which, aided by anti-war and anti-Blair activists and every self-styled intelligence 'expert' in the media, it has promptly and disastrously done.
This is hardly surprising, given the way Mr Blair's government has squandered public trust in so many other areas. The underlying cause is that this is a government of tyros, with no hinterland of political maturity or experience which might have brought its various fantasies of power down to earth.
In the past, our disinterested civil service played that role and kept the show on the road. But with the unforgiveable connivance of the former Cabinet Secretary Lord Butler - who now happens to be chairing the intelligence inquiry -the Prime Minister marginalised and politicised the civil service, and handed over the administration of government instead to immature, inexperienced or ideological political courtiers.
The result has been chaos in many areas of government. And the greater the chaos, the more it had to be concealed. That was why spin and its supreme practitioner Alistair Campbell were so vital. Eventually, this was rumbled and Mr Campbell had to go. But now he has gone, we can see from the ensuing disarray what happens when a master illusionist leaves the stage.
If the Iraq war hadn't happened, this would merely provoke contempt and disdain. But for those of us who thought that war was a just and necessary strike in the defence of the civilised world against terror, what is happening now has taken on the dimensions of tragedy.
For on this occasion, it is my view that Blair has actually told the truth. He acted on what he was told when he first came to office: that Saddam was an unconscionable threat that had to be dealt with, and that the nexus between terrorism and WMD was the most deadly danger the whole world faced.
But he is not believed; and the reason lies ultimately in his own weakness, insecurity and poor judgment, and the flawed government he has formed in that image.
Mr Blair himself, though, whether he is brought down or struggles on, is not the main casualty here. The really lethal damage has been done to the alliance against terror and the ability of this country to defend itself. For if neither politicians nor secret intelligence are now to be believed, there will be no agreement to fight any future battles that still lie ahead.
This is, of course, what the appeaseniks have been working towards. It is also why Michael Howard's political opportunism is so lamentably ill-judged. The terrorists of the Islamic jihad, whose contempt for western decadence lies at the core of their murderous project, must be laughing fit to bust.