You can tell when high summer comes to Westminster. Smartly dressed groups, lost and ill at ease — the women in hats and best frocks — wander through Westminster Hall in search of Buckingham Palace garden parties. The Catalpa trees in New Palace Yard burst into bloom, and their viscous, sickly scent spreads everywhere. These are always dangerous, fretful weeks. The whips hate them; they sense trouble, and yearn to close politics down and send their MPs away to the safety of family holidays.
Last week MPs and ministers moved about in little groups. The Blairites clung to each other for protection against the supporters of Chancellor Gordon Brown, angry and dispossessed. Monday belonged to the Brown faction. Their hero — the man they want in Downing Street by October — set out his spending plans in a demonstration of raw power. The Chancellor ranged massively beyond his formal Treasury brief, announcing not only the sums his Cabinet colleagues have been awarded, but how they were going to spend them too. He effectively outlined the government’s strategy for the general election. This was the speech of a prime minister, not a chancellor. Tony Blair, sitting beside his rival, was frozen, glassy-eyed and diminished.
It seemed that Wednesday, too, might belong to the Brownites, with the publication of the Butler report. The Prime Minister was fighting not just for his political life, but for something far more valuable. He was fighting for his soul. Something unusual happened to Tony Blair after September 11. He stopped seeing himself as a workaday pragmatic politician like his predecessors John Major, Jim Callaghan and Harold Wilson. Instead he became aware that he possessed certain unique insights. He became that dangerous thing, a man of destiny.
This was how he sold the Iraq war to a reluctant British public and a hostile Labour party.