Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Without Public Support, War Could Prove Fatal to the PM; COMMENTARY

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Without Public Support, War Could Prove Fatal to the PM; COMMENTARY

Article excerpt


IAIN DUNCAN SMITH is right. Over the summer, Tony Blair has allowed the debate about Iraq to drift.

No Government minister has tried to convince the public that Saddam Hussein really does pose an immediate threat to world peace. As the Tory leader says, "we" - that is, politicians who would support an Americanled assault on Iraq - "risk losing the argument before we've begun".

Indeed, the cause may be already beyond reach. At the beginning of this year, when an attack against Baghdad was first mooted, a narrow majority liked the idea. There seemed every chance a robust campaign led by the Prime Minister would have persuaded a much bigger majority to back the use of British troops.

Instead, the critics have dominated the public debate. As a result, support for military action has ebbed away. The latest surveys make grim reading for Mr Blair.

In its Guardian poll a week ago, ICM found just 30 per cent now think Britain should "support the American policy on Iraq", while 52 per cent do not. YouGov's survey for yesterday's Mail on Sunday posed a tougher option, "the use of British troops in an American-led military action against Iraq", and found only 28 per cent in favour (down nine points in four weeks), with 61 per cent against (up nine).

Strictly speaking, of course, the Prime Minister could choose to disregard public opinion were he to decide to commit troops. He would still be able to command a big majority in the Commons. (There would almost certainly be more pro-war Tory MPs than antiwar Labour rebels.) However, the only Prime Minister in the past 70 years to lead Britain into war without overwhelming popular support was Sir Anthony Eden in 1956. His opponents in Parliament, Trafalgar Square and parts of the press drew strength from the fact they spoke for a huge slice of public opinion.

In contrast, antiwar campaigners had far less impact when they opposed the Falklands War, the fight to eject Iraq from Kuwait, and the battle to liberate Kosovo.

In each case they spoke for only a minority. Today, the antiwar movement is potentially better placed than at any time since the Thirties. …

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