21 April 2005
Today, in a wide-ranging interview with The Independent, the Prime Minister stakes his claim to another term of Labour government. As a newspaper, we have not been unsupportive of Tony Blair's objectives and we are pleased that he has restated his commitment both to the European constitution and to further reform of the public services. We have, however, been among his harshest critics on the issue that came to dominate his second term: the decision to go to war in Iraq.
It is to Mr Blair's credit that in his interview he did not duck the inevitable questions about Iraq. Whether the answers carry conviction is, as he acknowledged, a matter on which people will make up their own minds. "On the rest," he says , "I think we have delivered." Clearly, this is a man with no illusions about the shadow Iraq casts on his record: if the war had not happened, he would surely be coasting to a third term with another huge parliamentary majority.
But it did happen, and it happened because Mr Blair decided that Britain should stand alongside our US ally, rather than accept the view of the majority of the UN Security Council that it was premature to go to war. This decision will undoubtedly cause voters who have supported Mr Blair and the Labour Party to defect on 5 May - precisely how many will not be known until the ballots are cast - and has greatly complicated the choice for very many more.
Mr Blair returns time and again to the "nightmarish" difficulty of the decision he had to make. Of course, the decision to wage war is a nightmare for any democratic leader. The decision he is referring to, however, is the choice forced upon him by the refusal of the UN Security Council to authorise the use of force. What, he asks, was he supposed to do when there were 250,000 troops deployed to the region, and Saddam Hussein remained in breach of the UN resolutions, yet it was impossible to obtain the so-called "second UN resolution"? This was a difficult choice where there was, as Mr Blair has said on several occasions "no middle way".
In starting his explanation of the decision-making here, however, Mr Blair omits to say that his all-or-nothing dilemma was but the consequence of a whole series of earlier misjudgements for which he also bears responsibility. Why were the troops already deployed in the region, if not to force the pace of events? Why was anyone prepared to go to war on the basis of intelligence that many questioned at the time and was later proved wrong? Why did Mr Blair interpret the information he was given as he did, why did he misread the mood of the Security Council, and why does he still refuse to release the Attorney General's legal advice?
The one error Mr Blair admits, obliquely, is the publication of the "dodgy dossier" on Iraq's weapons capability. It would, he said, have been preferable simply to have published the Joint Intelligence Committee reports. Maybe it would, especially given the trouble this dossier subsequently caused. But it is unlikely the JIC reports would have served the purpose of convincing the still-sceptical British public, and even less likely that the JIC would have agreed to their publication.
The Prime Minister says he wishes people would stop challenging his integrity over the war in Iraq. Yes, there is a body of opinion according to which Mr Blair knowingly lied about Iraq's weapons, but this has never been our contention. Our issue is not so much with Mr Blair's honesty as with his judgement. A wrong decision is a wrong decision, even if it was honestly made. And a wrong decision to go to war is perhaps the most grievous misjudgement a national leader can make.