Thursday, 13 March 2003

Blair is plunging Britain into a crisis of democracy

This has already been a desperate week for Tony Blair. First, his handling of the Iraq crisis was openly denounced as "reckless" by a member of his own cabinet, Clare Short. He then advertised his growing political weakness by failing to sack her, emboldening parliamentary defiance and triggering the first calls by Labour MPs for his replacement. The following day, as Blair was slow handclapped by a television audience, the French president, Jacques Chirac, appeared to close off Blair's last hope of any new UN security council resolution that could be presented as authorising war by declaring: "Whatever the circumstances, France will vote no."

Now, most gallingly of all, the prime minister has been stabbed in the back by the very US administration for whom he has put his own leadership on the line. By publicly calling into question Blair's ability to join a US attack on Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld was clearly signalling the Pentagon's impatience with the chaotic diplomatic quadrille in New York and letting it be known that Blair's usefulness to his US patrons may be close to being exhausted. Some have suggested the US defence secretary was merely trying to be helpful, but given Downing Street's frenzied reaction and Rumsfeld's unilateralist convictions, that seems deeply implausible.

The two sides were busy talking down the transatlantic rift yesterday, but the worst of the week may not yet be behind Blair. President Bush has insisted there will be a vote on a new security council resolution by the weekend. The terms of the ultimatums being cooked up for it - including a requirement that Saddam Hussein gives a televised confession of his mendacity - make clear it is designed to be rejected by the Iraqi regime and pave the way for an immediate US invasion. And unless Chirac decides to perform a self-defeating volte-face, the expectation must be that the resolution - now mainly being fought for to save Tony Blair's political skin - will be vetoed.

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