The time has come for the Prime Minister to detach himself from Mr Bush

02 February 2004

With one bound, the Prime Minister was not free. He escaped the clutches of his own dissident backbenchers in last week's tuition fees vote, and was exonerated by Lord Hutton over the suicide of a government scientist. But he still faces an excruciating dilemma. When should he admit that the intelligence services got the threat from Saddam Hussein badly wrong?

A properly truthful politician would simply say: "That's a bit of a surprise. We honestly thought he had chemical and biological weapons. Couldn't take the risk of continuing the policy of containment. Never mind, we got rid of a terrible dictator and the Iraqi people will be grateful in time, even if they are inexplicably sullen now."

And a politician who claims to have "honestly done what I thought was best for the country all the way through", as Mr Blair does, would have ordered an investigation to find out how such faults in intelligence - which are potentially dangerous for this country's security - could be put right.

President George Bush last week began to move cautiously in this direction, saying he wants to "be able to compare what the Iraq Survey Group has found with what we thought prior to going into Iraq". But he is reluctant to order an investigation - and certainly not an independent one.

Mr Blair was even more reluctant while Lord Hutton was pondering his verdict, because he did not want to confuse the narrow question of whether Andrew Gilligan used loose phraseology with the broad issue of why the famous dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was so mistaken.

The Prime Minister now has to start turning a difficult corner. Hence the drafting in of John Reid, nominally the Secretary of State for Health, as all-purpose spokesman for tricky questions, to explain why the pre-war intelligence was right at the time.

What makes the inevitable adjustment so difficult is the progress of the American presidential race. Mr Bush is now running neck and neck with an as yet unidentified Democratic nominee, although tomorrow's primary polls may bring that decision much closer. The President's ratings have not fallen because of the intelligence failure in Iraq, but that failure has now become a campaign issue.

Of course, voting intentions are volatile at this stage of the campaign. When Mr Bush's wall of money hits the airwaves after his summer coronation by the Republican convention, he is likely to overwhelm whichever Democrat is left standing. But either John Kerry or John Edwards, the two Democratic front-runners, have a better chance of riding out the flood than the early leader, the anti-war Howard Dean. That means Mr Blair has to keep an eye on the possibility that he may just have to work with a Democratic President after November - but meanwhile he does not want to do anything to undermine his friend Mr Bush.

Mr Kerry last week set out his priorities for the "war on terror" which are sharply distinct from those of Mr Bush. In Thursday's debate, he said it was "primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation that requires co-operation around the world - the very thing this administration is worst at". Not only does Mr Blair probably agree with that, it makes an inquiry into the intelligence failure in Iraq all the more critical to protecting America and Britain from the threat of terrorism.

Mr Kerry went on to say that "most importantly, the war on terror is also an engagement in the Middle East economically, socially, culturally, in a way that we haven't embraced, because otherwise we're inviting a clash of civilisations". Mr Blair certainly agrees with that but, because he wants to keep in with Mr Bush, he will not say so.

Perhaps it is time for him to consider whether Britain has gained anything from its uncritical support for an ideological and arrogant President, and ask himself how long he can frustrate the national interest by obstructing an open and credible inquiry into the intelligence failure in Iraq.