Hawks hold the key to Blair's future

The Prime Minister's fate is in the hands of Donald Rumsfeld. It is an alarming prospect, but Downing Street strategists know that if the US defence secretary wins the latest battle for the president's ear it could spell disaster. "We think Bush is with us. His track record suggests he is," says one of Tony Blair's people. "We have to stop him listening to noises off."

The hawks in Washington pose a considerably bigger threat to Blair than a restive Parliamentary Labour Party, whose concerns Blair sought to allay on 15 January. He is in the middle of an extremely intricate game of chess. He is prepared for war. He thinks it will happen in the middle range of predictions - March or April. He is confident Hans Blix and his inspection team will provide the "material breach" they are searching for, and he is very confident that he will get the UN backing he would prefer for military action. "We'll get UN cover under all conceivable circumstances," says a minister.

Blair got what he wanted from his monthly press conference on 13 January - newspaper headlines with a tough message that neither George W Bush nor he would be beholden to the UN. But as ever with Iraq, read between the lines. "You can't signal publicly that you won't act without a UN mandate," says a senior cabinet minister. "That plays to the wobbliest elements on the Security Council."

If all goes according to plan, criticism at home can be managed. Blair's aides see three categories of critics - the out-and-out anti-war brigade; the sceptics who are yet to be convinced that Saddam Hussein poses a threat to our national security or is linked to international terrorism; and those who will accept war through the UN. Downing Street believes the third group constitutes the majority of the Labour Party and the country. The second group is the hardest. Its size is underestimated. Blair has yet to provide evidence of Saddam's malfeasance, to produce the casus belli.

Labour officials suggest talk of a "bonfire of party cards" is overblown. "The 270,000 members who remain are pragmatic and moderate types," says one official. "They're hard-headed and mature about the difficult decisions we have to take. The others have already gone. Six years into the life of the government, we're not talking romance."

Blair "did it" on Kosovo and Afghanistan, his people say; trust him this time. At the heart of the trust lie several paradoxes: he can't play up the UN too much; he can't talk about influencing Bush, less still of restraining him. Members of the government fearful of war know all this, and that is why - with the exception of Clare Short - they are keeping onside publicly, notably Gordon Brown, who omitted the nuance in his enthusiasm to sound tough on Saddam.

Senior figures in government and the party accept that a war without a fresh UN mandate and/or without the inspectors completing their mission (Short's two bottom lines) would be an altogether different matter. That is why Blair's people were so furious at Rumsfeld, who they believe was the "senior official" quoted in the Washington Post on 12 January. It all coincided with the start of a campaign against Blair by conservatives in the US, accusing him of wobbling. It was one thing for the Rumsfeld soundalike to tell the Post that Blix's report on 27 January marked the "beginning of a final phase". It was one thing to say that "we are not prepared to let this go on and on". What really stuck in the craw in Downing Street was the suggestion that Blair "may have gone too far" in lowering expectations of war.

If Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney et al persuade Bush that Blair's heart is not in it, then Blair is done for. His influence will disappear, war will begin without UN backing, and our Prime Minister, while going along with it, will see his strategy of tacking close to the US blown apart. All bets then will be off. In the meantime, don't expect Blair to find too many soothing words for Labour's worried heartlands.