The greatest part of the Blair premiership has been notable for its sideways, crablike movements. Even on the occasions when the Prime Minister has been clear in his own mind about his destination, he has been opaque with the public at large and even with colleagues. There is an embedded belief in No. 10 that openness about motives or objectives is the same as giving away battle plans to the enemy. This is the main reason why Tony Blair has often dismayed his friends by failing to show leadership - think of taxation, parliamentary reform, fox-hunting and, above all, the euro. He has never moved an inch forward unless there is a ready-made coalition and well-prepared lines of retreat.
That is why the Prime Minister's 90-minute press conference at Sedgefield on Tuesday afternoon was so shocking. Blair endorsed a bold and vigorous course of action, namely the invasion of Iraq, in the face of the opposition of fully 70 per cent of the British people. Not merely that: a good half of his own party are against; international opinion is virtually unanimous in opposition; and Cabinet resignations can be taken for granted if Blair sanctions an invasion. Cherie Booth - never a force to be overlooked entirely - is said to harbour strong doubts.
It is true that Tony Blair enjoys the wholehearted backing of Iain Duncan Smith and the bulk of - though by no means all - Conservative MPs. But this source of support is unlikely to make the Prime Minister sleep better at nights, though it is not hard to imagine circumstances where it might conserve his parliamentary majority. Bush, Blair, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Duncan Smith stand alone.
It is tempting to search for the usual crab-like reasons behind the Prime Minister's uncharacteristic lurch to the extremities of opinion and action. War with Iraq is not susceptible to New Labour's usual method of interposing itself between two opposing points of view in order to look moderate. Tony Blair's evasiveness was looking ever more inadequate as the summer dragged on. Nor should it be forgotten that Blair's public loyalty has earned him the right to play the role of candid friend to the US President from behind the scenes, doubtless urging the merits of the United Nations. All of this should not hide the fact that Blair is acting out of conviction. He believes, and has believed for some time, that Saddam Hussein is a menace to world peace, and must be toppled.
A successful invasion will open the way to a more secure and decent world. The consequences of failure - revolution in friendly Middle-Eastern states, death and destruction on an epic scale, the arrival of an unfriendly new world order, the withdrawal of the United States - are frightening. In the context of all this it is parochial to spend too much time contemplating the effect on domestic British politics, and otiose to add that Tony Blair is taking the biggest gamble of his life.
For America, this will be the biggest and most dangerous foreign involvement since Vietnam; for Britain the most hazardous adventure since Suez. Perhaps 25,000 British troops will find themselves in action, and casualties can be expected - perhaps a great many casualties if Saddam can prevail on his army to retreat and fight in the cities. This war is not going to be like Kosovo, fought from the air at very little risk to the lives of allied serviceman. It is the prospect of these heavy casualties which makes the public hostility to conflict such an important factor: something that must be turned around before an invasion starts.
Downing Street privately admits that public opinion was allowed to slip away over the summer when Tony Blair stopped short of arguing for war. That has now changed, and Tony Blair places great faith in the promised dossier on Saddam. Blair said at Sedgefield that he had decided to bring publication forward: 'Originally I had the intention that we wouldn't get round to publishing the dossier until we'd actually taken the key decisions.' (This statement is false. It was the government's original intention, according to Alastair Campbell in a briefing to American journalists earlier this year, to publish the dossier at the time of Blair's meeting with George Bush at Crawford six months ago. Furthermore, it looks as if all the key decisions have been made. No matter.)
But the dossier will not, on its own, do the trick. If war is to enjoy public support, the Prime Minister and his ministers must go out and sell it, in the way that they have failed to sell the euro. Some members of the Cabinet seem hopelessly opposed, among them Robin Cook. Cook can be expected to resign in the event of a war. Some colleagues say he recognises that he is unlikely to survive the next Cabinet reshuffle, and wants to leave the government on his own terms.
Another senior Cabinet minister playing games is Gordon Brown. According to newspaper reports, the Chancellor is alarmed by the likely cost of the war, the effect on the oil price, etc. If accurately stated - an important proviso - the Chancellor's arguments are a nonsense. In the context of the momentous issues connected with an Iraqi war, the £2 billion estimated cost - something like 0.2 per cent of British GDP - does not matter, and it would be disingenuous of Gordon Brown to argue that it did.
But we do not know what the Chancellor is thinking, because so far he has not uttered a word. The chances are that he is waiting to see which way the wind blows, and in the meantime is relaxed to read reports that he is sceptical. The Blairites have been here before with the Chancellor. Gordon Brown - in normal circumstances more than happy to meddle in any ministerial pie - has a habit of going quiet during crises. This is a luxury that Tony Blair cannot allow over Iraq: first, for reasons of personal prudence. There are certain similarities between the conduct of Gordon Brown today and that of Harold Macmillan when Chancellor during Suez. Alan Clark in his history of the Tory party says that 'had it been known at the time it might have finished off Macmillan's chances of the leadership once and for all. In fact, and operating covertly, he exploited his tenure of this key office most unscrupulously to undermine Eden and advance his own claims to the premiership.' Rab Butler, the other leadership threat, was almost as treacherous. If Blair is to lead Britain to war, he must take the elementary precaution of securing his domestic base.
But Blair's survival is not the only, or even the most important issue. If the British public is to be convinced of the merits of this war, the Prime Minister, his Cabinet and, above all, the Chancellor must sing with one voice. Tony Blair must bind Gordon Brown closer than his own brother before he orders the march on Baghdad.