Peter Oborne

The US holds the key to paying off Blair’s debts

The US holds the key to paying off Blair’s debts

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I was brought up near Warminster in Wiltshire, and love this quiet, unassuming country town. Its proximity to the Salisbury plain has ensured it the role of local garrison, a position viewed with at best mixed emotions by the locals. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the Royal Irish Rangers, unable to serve back home, incessantly returned to Warminster. The Irish Rangers, since disbanded, were brave men and fine soldiers, but they instilled a reign of terror in the local pubs and nightspots that is remembered with a shudder to this day.

Now Warminster plays host to one of the British army’s most famous regiments, the Black Watch, or to be precise their families, for most of the men have been serving in southern Iraq. Over the past month or so a trickle of Black Watch soldiers has started to return to Warminster, preparing for the end of their tour of duty, their second since the start of the conflict. Then last week, with no warning, this Black Watch advance guard was ordered back to Iraq, and told they would be expected to stay beyond Christmas.

Army families are accustomed to constant disruption, tearful partings, the loneliness and isolation of barracks life. These families are often rooted in a regimental tradition dating back generations, and possess a stoicism and honourable resilience quite incomprehensible to civilians. But the casual callousness with which this regiment, which faces extinction thanks to the latest defence review, has been treated defies belief. Against all precedent, some of the Black Watch families are starting to protest publicly, though there is no doubt that the regiment, led by Lt Col. James Cowan, will serve with valour and high morale wherever it is sent.

Geoff Hoon, a wretched Defence Secretary even by the degraded standards of the Blair administration, denied on Monday that any decision had been made about the redeployment of British troops in answer to a request for reinforcements from the US. This assertion, like so many of Hoon’s public utterances, has been treated with contempt by almost everyone involved. Indeed, Hoon contradicted himself within minutes, tripped up when answering a question from the hitherto innocuous Liberal Democrat Jenny Tonge. When she inquired what consequences would follow if Britain turned down the US request, Hoon replied, ‘We will have failed in our duty as an ally.’

This answer showed that the government must already have committed to sending troops, a move that is regarded with consternation by some senior soldiers. I am told that General Sir Mike Walker, chief of the defence staff, is alarmed by the new perils this might involve, and he is in any case disturbed by the chronic worldwide overreach of the British armed forces.

Walker has been undermined by Major General John McColl, the British representative in the main US command HQ in Baghdad. McColl was sent to Baghdad partly in order the mitigate criticisms that Britain had no serious input in the Iraq command structure. In practice he has come to see the conflict through American eyes. He believes that a British presence alongside US troops is essential if the increasingly bitter differences within the coalition are to be resolved. This view is by no means shared by every British commander in Basra, but the important thing is that McColl has the ear of Tony Blair and has not felt the need to use Mike Walker as the vehicle for his representations.

In the end the decision is down to the Prime Minister. Downing Street protestations that the US request has been made at an operational level are disingenuous. There has already been at least one demand for British front-line assistance in Fallujah, probably more. It was turned down. These decisions about British troop deployments are political, and everyone knows it.

That is why Monday’s Commons statement from Geoff Hoon was such a break point. The ill-tempered debate that followed marked the long-delayed moment when Labour MPs turned on the Blair government for its inflexible support for George Bush. The point, made by many backbenchers, that 600 Black Watch troops will play little more than a symbolic role within a 130,000-strong US presence in Iraq is a little unfair. US forces are very tightly stretched thanks to the failed Cheney/ Rumsfeld doctrine of minimum force, and the presence of the superb Black Watch fighting force will come as a welcome reinforcement. Nevertheless the request for troops so very close to a knife-edge US election has at the least a strong political overtone.

So Tony Blair faces a dilemma. He can deliver for his closest international ally George Bush, or he can head off an insurgency on his back benches, but not both. Some Labour MPs have been saying that this issue could bring down the Prime Minister: imagine the reaction if British soldiers started to suffer serious casualties in the new, more dangerous area of operations.

The problem is complicated further by the burdensome financial arrangements entered into when Tony Blair purchased his new Connaught Square house. He is reckoned to have incurred a £2.5 million debt, massive by any standards. It is not known who lent him the money, or on what terms. Whatever the truth, it is clear that the United States holds the key to paying it off. The Prime Minister has apparently dismissed the notion of an instant memoir. But the remunerative US lecture circuit, where his wife Cherie has already dipped her toe in the water, is another matter.

One of the overlooked aspects of the Bush family is the way it looks after clients and retainers. One manifestation of this by no means unattractive syndrome is George Bush Snr’s patronage of John Major, who has been made a millionaire many times over thanks to his senior role in the Carlyle group, the hugely well-connected private equity group which on Tuesday announced a staggering $6.6 billion cash payout to investors.

John Major’s American role means that he is rarely seen in this country these days, and it is far from unreasonable to speculate that the former British prime minister’s failure to air his private reservations about the Iraq war is linked to his intimate connection with the Bush family. There is no reason why, one day, Tony Blair should not expect a similar reward.

There is no doubt at all that any decision by Tony Blair to deepen British involvement in Iraq will strengthen the special relationship yet further, supposing that were possible. But there is no question, either, that every extra British soldier sent to the Iraq theatre will increase our Prime Minister’s earning capacity in the United States once he has left office. Tony Blair has yet to declare his private financial interest in the deepening of the Iraq war in the register of Members’ interests. Downing Street spokesmen would protest, with good reason, that this is entirely reasonable: any suggestion that a British prime minister could be influenced, even subconsciously, in such a way is scandalous. It is worth remembering, however, that when the Prime Minister framed the new code of conduct for ministers five years ago, it insisted that ministers should take ‘systematic steps’ to avoid conflicts of interest, whether they were ‘actual’ or merely ‘perceived’.