Blair: Falklands glory or Suez-cide?

AS the bombs start falling on Iraq, the big political poser is whether Tony Blair's war will turn out to be another Suez debacle or a Falklands triumph.

By Graham Dines

AS the bombs start falling on Iraq, the big political poser is whether Tony Blair's war will turn out to be another Suez debacle or a Falklands triumph.

If the Prime Minister has a good war – a swift victory with few civilian deaths and British casualties kept to a minimum – his resilient stand in the face of huge opposition in the county and the Labour Party will have been vindicated.

Although many in the Labour movement will never forgive his decision to hitch the United Kingdom to George's Bush's military wagon, he will emerge with his reputation considerably enhanced, just like Mrs Thatcher did after the routing of the Argentinians in 1982.

But should our troops become bogged down for months, thousands of Iraqi civilians die, British deaths exceed the 300 suffered in the Falklands conflict, hostilities break out between Palestinians and Israelis, and international terrorism erupt on the streets of Britain, then I think the Prime Minister will look long and hard at his own future.

I would not expect him to go to the annual Labour Party conference in Bournemouth in the autumn as leader if the military campaign is a disaster.

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It would be Suez all over again. Mr Blair, for all his achievements on the domestic front and in the former Yugoslavia, would become another Sir Anthony Eden, maligned and vilified, forced out of office by an adventure which all went sour.

With the Tories supporting the moral justification for intervention in Iraq, the Prime Minister is unlikely to lose a vote in the Commons. But he would certainly be toppled if another 50 Labour MPs vote against him should the war go pearshaped.

Mr Blair took the biggest political gamble of his premiership in backing President George Bush. He has a wide cross-section of both his party and the public hostile to his actions and suspicious of his motives, and most church leaders have remained resolutely opposed to his strategy. One bishop this week made the barbed comment that the war was being prosecuted by two men, Bush and Blair, who professed to be Christians.

Like or loathe Blair, support or oppose his decision on Iraq, it must be admitted that his speech in the Commons on Tuesday was a brilliant presentation of his case even though it was not totally convincing.

He had risked everything on getting a United Nations resolution and is haunted by its failure due to French intransigence. Britain's relations with the European Union have plunged back to their lowest level since Mrs Thatcher was swinging her handbag against President Mitterand in the 1980s.

The weeks events have left two other reputations are on the line.

International Development Secretary Clare Short must surely be on borrowed time. Having taunted the Prime Minister that he was being "reckless" with his Government, his party and his reputation, she refused to carry this to its logical conclusion and resign along with Commons leader Robin Cook.

Miss Short has lost all credibility among the public or the Labour Party. She avoided answering departmental questions in the Commons on Wednesday by clearing off to New York to talk to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Running away from the sound of gunfire might go down well with pacifists, but if Mr Blair emerges from the coming weeks unscathed, she will be sent packing.

And so to Charles Kennedy, who proudly takes the moral high ground as leader of the anti-war party.

Lord Strathclyde, the Conservative leader in the House of Lords, this week taunted the Liberal Democrats. He said he found it difficult to "fathom the attitude of a party that denounces the legality of a war right up to the last minute and then says it supports a war when it is fought."

In a brilliant put down on Tuesday, the Prime Minister dubbed the Lib Dems "united in opportunism and error" – a sentiment clearly shared by Labour MPs on both sides of the war debate and the Conservatives.

The Prime Minister has painted Kennedy and the Liberal Democrats as pariahs – the futures of both men are now in the hands of our armed forces.

THE political focus of the nation quite properly centred on the Commons this week with virtually no-one paying any attention to the parallel debate which took place in the Lords.

More than 40 peers put their names down for the marathon debate, although unlike the Commons there was no vote.

The justification for keeping an unelected second chamber is that the combination of prelates, judges, retired military officers, and superannuated politicians can provide wisdom and guidance in an atmosphere unlike the hysteria of the Commons.

The main speaker from this region in the debate was Lord Phillips of Sudbury (Liberal Democrat), who insisted no action should be taken without the backing of the United Nations.

"Even if I were convinced of the legality of the proposed joint invasion, which I am not; and if I were convinced of the immediate and pressing humanitarian need for instant invasion, which I am not; or if I were convinced that the US-UK invasion would render the world more secure from terrorism which, certainly, I am not, I would still favour seeking a second Security Council resolution as a pre-condition of invasion," said Lord Phillips.

A former head of the Diplomatic Service, crossbencher Lord Wright of Richmond, said international and domestic support for the Government was "as fragile as in any situation I can recall since Suez.".

He accused the USA of having presented its case in a "dishonest and inconsistent way," but added: "It's clearly too late to question why we are going to war."

He warned that, unless the Palestinian question was resolved, "an invasion of Iraq will inevitably be seen as an assault on Islam, with all the risks of further terrorist attacks that this implies."

Tory former Foreign Secretary Lord Howe of Aberavon criticised the way the case had been presented by the USA. America and the UK had "failed sufficiently to convince the international jury and failed sufficiently to convince our domestic audience." Britain and the USA were acting like a judge in overriding what they regarded as a "perverse verdict."

A former Chief of the Defence Staff, Field Marshal Lord Bramall, told peers: "I doubt that we have been in as big a muddle over our international relations since the Suez crisis."

Lord Bramall (Independent) said: "I have never been keen to go down this path of confrontation, as distinct from containment, in the first place." But he acknowledged that, on national interest grounds, Mr Blair had had little choice.

"So shoulder to shoulder, my Lords, it must be; and we can only hope that the optimistic forecasts of how long the war will last will prove accurate,"

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