Politics: 2003 in hindsight

The toppling of Saddam Hussein and the deposing of Iain Duncan Smith dominated the international and domestic political agendas. Throw in the European Constitution, variable top-up fees for students, foundation hospitals, and the proposed expansion of Stansted airport and that was 2003.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein and the deposing of Iain Duncan Smith dominated the international and domestic political agendas. Throw in the European Constitution, variable top-up fees for students, foundation hospitals, and the proposed expansion of Stansted airport and that was 2003.

EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES reviews the past 12 months

THE WAR

OLD misery Tony Blair, sunning himself in Egypt, was all doom and gloom on New Year's Day when he issued his annual message. "I cannot recall a time when Britain was confronted, simultaneously, by such a range of difficult and, in some cases, dangerous problems."


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But he added: "Amid these twin concerns over world security and the world economy my message is this: that though the concerns are real and justified, Britain is well placed to face up to them."

Mr Blair's support for an American invasion of Iraq split the nation. Opinion polls showed that while the public would support British troops in action, there was consistently a majority against war taking place at all.

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Tens of thousands of people marched through London in the biggest demonstration the capital had ever seen. "Stop the War" and "Not in My Name" read the banners – President George W Bush was portrayed as a warmonger whose only interest was in grabbing Iraq's vast supplies of oil with Tony Blair as his willing poodle

The Government managed to mess up totally the case for war. Instead of truthfully admitting that the main reason we sent in troops was to overthrow a cruel tyrant and to free the Iraqi people to live their own lives in freedom, it compiled dossiers alleging that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction that he could deploy at 45 minutes notice against British interests.

In the House of Commons on March 18, 139 Labour MPs voted against the war, with Liberal Democrats, Nationalists, and some free-thinking Conservatives. The Government only managed a majority because it was supported by the most Tory MPs, whose leader Iain Duncan Smith sounded even more pro-war than the Prime Minister.

It was a short, sharp, violent war. Shock and Awe was the description used of the nightly pounding of Baghdad by allied warplanes and sea-launched missiles. British troops piled into southern Iraq, capturing the key city of Basra, while divisions of US forces crushed opposition on their way to Baghdad.

President Bush declared victory on May 1 – but Saddam was not captured until December 13, no weapons of mass destruction have been found, and insurgents and remnants of the old regime are still putting up pockets of resistance. More US troops have been killed since the war was declared over than during the conflict, and nobody has ever counted just how many Iraqis, both civilian and military, have perished this year as a result of military action.

The aftermath of the war, and in particular the alleged "dodgy" dossier on the weapons of mass destruction, rocked the Government in the summer. The Government's renowned weapons expert Dr David Kelly, having briefed the BBC on the "sexing up" of the document, committed suicide, leading to an inquiry headed by High Court judge Lord Hutton, who even summoned the Prime Minister to give evidence. His findings will be published in January.

When President Bush spent four days in Britain in November on a State Visit, he was greeted by anti-war demonstrations, and the toppling of his effigy in Trafalgar Square.

PARTY CONFERENCES AND THE END OF IDS

THE Liberal Democrats in Brighton believed they were going to inherit the earth on the back of their spectacular success in the Brent East by-election, when they gained a safe Labour seat. Gordon Brown lost the plot at Labour's bash in Bournemouth – his "best when we are Labour" attempt to appeal to the left of the party and union leaders was trumped by a defiant Tony Blair, who assured delegates he had no reverse gear and he wasn't about to ditch New Labour for socialism.

As for the Tories in Blackpool – a conference bursting with innovative policies was overshadowed by plot and counter plot as the disaffected moved against Iain Duncan Smith. At the same time, Betsygate surfaced: what exactly did Betsy Duncan Smith do in return for the £15,000 she was paid out of her husband's office allowance?

Four weeks after the conference, Tory MPs sacked Duncan Smith and replaced him with Michael Howard. The newly united Tories had the will to win again, but the jury is still out as far as the public is concerned.

COUNCIL TAX AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT

The annual charge on householders, known as Council Tax, soared thanks to the Government's deliberate redistribution of grant away from the south of England to the north. Suffolk county council's tax went up 18.5% in April while in Essex, the figure was 16%. Seven months later, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was blamed by the Audit Commission for a policy which caused misery to thousands of residents on fixed incomes and pensions. More money was handed to local councils by Messrs Prescott and Brown this autumn, with the warning that the Government will not tolerate massive increases in Council Tax next year.

In May's local elections, the Conservatives gained more than 700 council seats, capturing a raft of authorities including Mid Suffolk and St Edmundsbury. The Liberal Democrats gained Uttlesford, the council area in which Stansted airport is situated.

EUROPE

In June, the Chancellor Gordon Brown gave his long awaited statement on British entry into the single European currency. It's not on yet, he told MPs. The five tests he set shortly after the 1997 election had not been met.

Although Mr Blair sat next to him nodding in agreement, it was a blow to the Prime Minister's ambitions of scrapping the pound to show just what a good European is.

Any hopes he had for a referendum effectively were killed in September, when a Swedish referendum rejected decisively the country joining the eurozone.

In September, the Government published a White Paper setting out the Government's formal response to the draft treaty drawn up by Valery Giscard d'Estaing's European Convention. The Prime Minister said he was confident of securing a constitution that would be "good for Britain and good for Europe."

Despite calls from across the political divide for such a far reaching document to be put to the people in a vote, the Government restated its refusal to call a referendum on the proposed new constitution for the European Union

But shadow foreign secretary Michael Ancram accused the Government of betraying the trust of the British people by its "docile surrender" to the idea of a politically-united Europe. He renewed Tory demands for a referendum, telling MPs: "Whatever the spin, the changes proposed in this treaty are fundamental and constitutional. No Government has the right to agree them without the consent of the people."

Fortunately for Mr Blair, Poland scuppered the deal. It's unlikely to resurface until after the General Election.

AND THE REST

In September, the TUC attempted to flex its muscles by demanding payback from the Labour government, especially over low wages and a reduction in the number of hours the British work. But Chancellor Gordon Brown told the brothers he would not yield to excessive pay demands.

The Government used its Scottish MPs in November to railroad through the Commons a policy on foundation hospitals which will not apply to Scotland. Labour MPs in England were furious

Tony Blair's Queen's Speech pledge to introduce variable top-up fees for university students in England and Wales from 2006 is also facing trouble. Around 150 Labour MPs are opposed – it may be Scotland to the rescue once again.

The Commonwealth heads of government conference voted to keep Zimbabwe suspended after this year's rigged elections human rights abuses– but President Robert Mugabe trumped this by quitting the "white man's club."

The Government's Christmas present to South-East England was a plan to construct a second runway at Stansted – south and mid Essex were not amused.

At the end of October, the Prime Minister was taken to hospital suffering from an irregular heart beat. A few weeks later, he was attended by doctors when he reported stomach pains.

Although he insists he's well, he looks drawn and pale, even though the capture of Saddam Hussein and the collapse of the European Constitution gave him some relief towards the end of December – the stresses of a troubled year in politics are showing only too plainly.

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