Peter Oborne

The Prime Minister has become the main international prop for George Bush

The Prime Minister has become the main international prop for George Bush

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Two weeks ago, in the course of an interview with the Observer, Tony Blair claimed that he had already said sorry for issuing false information about Iraq. This is what he said: ‘We’ve apologised for the information that was given being wrong.’

I have since ransacked government statements, but found no trace of any apology. Downing Street, when asked, has also been unable to shed any light on the matter. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Prime Minister’s claim was another of those lies which regularly drop from his lips.

Two days after the falsehood in the Observer, the Prime Minister made his annual speech to the Labour party conference. His aides pressed him to apologise, even planting the word ‘sorry’ in the final draft of his speech. But Tony Blair could not bring himself to utter the word. This is what he said instead: ‘I can apologise for the information that turned out to be wrong but I can’t, sincerely at least, apologise for removing Saddam.’

Friends of the Prime Minister duly claimed that this was the long-awaited recantation. But of course it was nothing of the sort. Tony Blair ‘can’ apologise, just as I ‘can’ walk to John O’ Groat’s. That does not mean that either of us have any intention of doing so.

There matters rested until poor Patricia Hewitt was cornered on Question Time last week. Under pressure she, like the Prime Minister, at first resorted to deceit. But the audience responded with gasps of disbelief, and Hewitt was forced into the nearest thing we have yet had to an expression of penitence from a senior member of the government.

This repeated failure to atone for deceiving the British people on the eve of a war is curious. Those around the Prime Minister provide a number of explanations: pride, arrogance, obstinacy, a genuine belief that he has done nothing wrong.

But the most plausible construction to have emerged so far is none of the above. Some well-placed analysts say that he is refusing to apologise because he is determined not to cause embarrassment to his close friend President Bush so close to the US elections.

The extent to which Tony Blair and the US President have been working together in recent months is easy to underestimate. Many things that seem mysterious only become clear when the depth and intensity of the relations between the two men are understood. Take the way the British and American governments responded to the devastating Iraq Survey Group report last week, which acquitted Saddam Hussein of possessing weapons of mass destruction, thus negating the reason for going to war. They made statements at almost exactly the same time, expressed exactly the same sentiments, in parts using almost identical language.

As the US elections loom, the two men are determined, says one insider, ‘that their positions should not go too far apart. The White House is extremely anxious that Downing Street should not issue an apology which would embarrass the US President.’ This factor is the primary reason why Tony Blair is expending his own political capital and refusing to level with the British people over WMD. If we are to get an apology out of Blair, it will not come before the November presidential election.

The truth is that Tony Blair has become the main international prop for George Bush as the election looms. What the Christian Right and the National Rifle Association do for George Bush inside the United States, Tony Blair does overseas. The British Prime Minister has become George Bush’s living, breathing rebuttal of John Kerry’s wounding attack that America has become an international pariah. Bush played the Blair card at the Republican convention, and in both the televised debates so far. He uses Blair shamelessly on the stump. Three weeks ago I attended a Bush rally in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Amid furious Republican denunciations of France and the United Nations, the President singled out Tony Blair — ‘and I was speaking to him only this morning’ — as proof that the United States can do business with the rest of the world. George Bush, in return, helps out Tony Blair as much as he can, most notably when the White House unavailingly sought to put pressure on Michael Howard’s Conservative party in the wake of the Hutton report.

This kind of mutual support pact between two leaders is unusual, though not quite unprecedented. Indeed, Tony Blair controversially came to the assistance of Bill Clinton when he publicly endorsed the president’s character when he faced impeachment. There are increasing signs that Tony Blair is starting to irritate John Kerry. Recently Kerry denounced George Bush’s ‘coalition of the bribed and the coerced’, a contemptuous put-down of Britain and Tony Blair. It is striking that, so far as we know, there has been no contact between the Democrat candidate for president and the Labour Prime Minister.

Tony Blair’s intense involvement with George Bush, perhaps the most right-wing US president in a century, has not merely distressed Democrats. It has caused extreme mortification among Labour MPs. Labour prides itself on being the ‘international’ party with pressing things to say about the environment, justice, fairness and much more besides. All these issues are being fought out as rarely before in the US presidential elections. And yet, with less than three weeks to voting day, Labour MPs remain almost mute, though badges marked ‘Labour for Kerry’ were furtively changing hands at the Labour conference in Brighton two weeks ago.

For Labour MPs, the knowledge that their Prime Minister is the most potent international supporter of George Bush as he seeks re-election is not just painful. It gets worse. They know they will have their full share of responsibility if and when Bush gets re-elected. For if the Labour party moved to dislodge Tony Blair, as briefly seemed a possibility over the summer, it would send a powerful message to the United States. President Bush would lose his apologist, and the American people would learn that Bush’s policies are so unpopular that they cost Tony Blair his job.

But Labour MPs lost their nerve. They hate themselves for it. They hate Tony Blair too. The role of the Labour party in President Bush’s re-election campaign will go down as one of the famous betrayals in the party’s history, up there with Ramsay MacDonald and the National government of the 1930s. Labour know, deep down in their hearts, that by getting rid of Blair they could have got rid of Bush. The failure to act will haunt them for ever.