Iraq WILL define premiership

IT'S more evident today than at any point since March last year, when MPs voted to back the decision to go to war to topple Saddam Hussein, that Iraq will be the defining memory of Tony Blair's premiership.

IT'S more evident today than at any point since March last year, when MPs voted to back the decision to go to war to topple Saddam Hussein, that Iraq will be the defining memory of Tony Blair's premiership.

Iraq by itself is unlikely to stop Labour winning a General Election, but when people talk of Tony Blair, it is Iraq with which he will be linked rather than the radical reformer of public services which he would rather have as his epitaph.

Mr Blair's refusal to say sorry this week to the Labour Party conference has done nothing to appease the tens of thousands of voters who feel the war was wrong and illegal, and that the ends did not justify the means.

Iraq has cast a pall over the Brighton gathering, notwithstanding the unity of delegates in their determination to ban hunting.

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The captors of hostage Ken Bigley, the Tawhid and Jihad group, said should he die it would be the fault of the British Prime Minister.

Conservative leader Michael Howard added to the pressure before yesterday's conference debate by telling leading left-wing magazine The New Statesman that Mr Blair did “lie” to the British people over Iraq.

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The Prime Minister is said to have agonised in the summer whether he should quit because Iraq was having such an impact on Labour's vote that he was

an electoral liability to the party.

With poll after poll indicating he had lost the trust of the voters because no weapons of mass destruction had been found, he was only talked out of walking away by his close allies in the Cabinet.

Late on Wednesday, he tried to end speculation about his future, indicating he would see out a full third term. “I have always said that I don't intend doing anything other than lasting the course. So the decision ultimately for the British people.”

It was another blow to the ambitions of Chancellor Gordon Brown. There is no doubt that if Mr Blair had quit - or should anything happen to Mr Blair before the election - Mr Brown would be elected Labour leader.

The votes of party members throughout Britain, plus the unions, would ensure Mr Brown fulfils would he believes is his destiny to take over move into No 10.

But once that election is out of the way, all bets are off on just who will inherit the New Labour mantle should Mr Blair decide to retire.

Mr Brown's brooding appearance and virtuous self-proclamation this week that really he is he one who has got Labour to within seven months of a third consecutive election triumph will be forgotten once that election is in the bag.

There is the distinct probability that Tony Blair will move is his “friend” of 20 years from the Treasury. Mr Blair is likely to be persuaded that both the Government and the Labour Party would be better off if the feuding between the Chancellor and himself was put to an end.

Would Mr Blair dare sack him from the Cabinet? Would Mr Brown accept another post? These are the questions that the Prime Minister will have to ponder during the run-up to the election because the shape of his third administration - if that is the outcome of the election - will be shaped long before polling day.

Should the Prime Minister decide halfway through the next Parliament, especially if a referendum rejects the European Constitution, that he's had enough, Gordon Brown will still seek the job.

But he'll be opposed all the way by Blairites. Alan Milburn, brought back into Government last month to mastermind Labour's re-election bid, must see himself as the natural heir.

Heath Secretary John Reid is one of Government's most effective communicators who has the ability to united all sections of the party and could portray himself as the unifying candidate.

That won't stop Norwich South MP and current Education Secretary Charles Clarke from standing, appealing to the Neil Kinnock faction within the Labour Party.

And gaff-prone Welsh Secretary and House Leader Peter Hain is equally ambitious. It has not gone unnoticed that Mr Hain, whose popularity rose among Labour delegates when his home was subjected to a demonstration by hunt supporters last weekend, has been at every regional reception held in Brighton this week, making himself accessible to the rank-and-file.

Although a Labour defeat next year - because of the electoral mathematics, the Tories have to be 9% ahead to have just a one-seat majority - Labour strategists are taking nothing for granted.

Election supreme Alan Milburn told a meeting: “I think it is a fight. No party should go into a general election campaign sating it is all in the bag, we can take it all for granted, we can do what we like and we'll get in.

“It isn't like that.

“The Conservative Party has won rather a lot of elections. It has won rather more elections than Labour has. Our job is to make sure that, just as they won a lot of elections in previous times, we've got to win lots of elections in the future.”

Labour's back in Brighton next year after an election that should see Mr Blair back with a much-reduced majority.

If Iraq still overshadows the 2005 conference, Mr Blair's hope of “lasting the course” may start to unravel.

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