Magazine article The Spectator

The Man Who Could Stop Blair Supporting a US War against Iraq

Magazine article The Spectator

The Man Who Could Stop Blair Supporting a US War against Iraq

Article excerpt

War with Iraq, previously a nebulous prospect, has come sharply into focus in the first two weeks of this year. Much has been resolved. In Washington Donald Rumsfeld has lost the argument. His original idea that a light and fast raiding party would, with the aid of an uprising from grateful Kurds and Shiites, be enough to destroy Saddam has been squashed by US generals. Nothing is to be left to chance. It is now clear that a more ponderous force of perhaps 250,000 will be brought to bear.

The British role is also clearer: it will be much less important than at one time thought. The involvement of the British army will be as militarily negligible as it is politically significant. This is an arrangement that will suit Tony Blair as much as it does the US military. It is frustrating, however, for British soldiers. The 7th Army Brigade has been exercising on the north German plain for three months, impatient for the order to go to war. This has not come. For six months the British army has known that this conflict was imminent. But the generals have been left without time to make sensible preparations. Indeed, unless they are deployed very soon indeed, British troops fear they will arrive too late for the battle proper. Instead they will be entrusted with the clean-up and, later still, peacekeeping duties which will probably prove much more dangerous than the battle itself.

Some soldiers judge that this was the Prime Minister's idea all along. They take the view that their job has been made more difficult in order to lighten the government's difficulties with its mutinous left-wing element. Military experts note, too, that the fleet's laborious progress towards the Gulf is testament to the way the government has neglected the armed forces. Our ships travelling east scandalously lack support aircraft. This is the indirect effect of the retirement last year of the assault ship HMS Fearless. Her successor, HMS Albion, is not yet in commission. This means that the Ark Royal (the other two carriers are being refitted) carries a complement of helicopters for assault purposes, but no fixed-wing aircraft.

But the British army is not the problem for the Prime Minister. Soldiers are trained to take orders, however uncongenial. This is not so unambiguously the case with the Labour party. Tony Blair has never been as exposed and detached from his own Cabinet, his MPs and the country at large as he is today. This is especially the case since Monday, when the Prime Minister made plain at a Downing Street press conference that he is determined to go ahead with war even without United Nations backing.

On this point Tony Blair enjoys the backing of lain Duncan Smith and the Tory party. Duncan Smith has been unfairly criticised for his on the whole faithful support for the Downing Street line throughout this crisis. But he has simply adopted the posture of all Tory oppositions when a progressive government has led the country into war. In 1914 Bonar Law saw it as his duty to stiffen Asquith's spine. In 1950 Winston Churchill backed Clem Attlee over Korea, while skilfully fermenting suspicion between the Labour government and its left wing, notably Aneurin Bevan. Duncan Smith is pursuing the same kind of tactic today. Tory support for the Downing Street line is as unwelcome on the Labour backbenches as it is unsettling within the government. …

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