One man went to war

John Kampfner reveals for the first time the full story of how Blair committed Britain to invade Ira

As the Hutton inquiry runs through its most crucial stage, it grows clearer by the day that the further Britain became committed to war, the more isolated Tony Blair became, even from close allies at the heart of government. How did it come to this?

To track the origins of Blair's lone odyssey, we have to go back to the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, on 21 April 1997. Ambassadors to the Court of St James had travelled to the north-west, eager to hear what the prime-minister-in-waiting had to say about foreign affairs. "I am a British patriot and I am proud to be a British patriot. I love my country. I will always put the interests of my country first. The Britain in my vision is not Britain turning its back on the world - narrow, shy, uncertain. It is a Britain confident of its place in the world, sure of itself, able to negotiate with the world and provide leadership in the world."

Ever since becoming party leader in 1994, Blair had sought to "close down" foreign policy as a contentious issue. Labour had form. It was still seen as the unilateralist party, weak on defence. Blair wanted to move on, to stress that any government under him would be tough. It would fight when needed. And it would be a staunch ally of the United States.

On the big international issues of the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s, Blair played it safe. His comments on arms sales and human rights did not extend beyond generalities. He did not sign a single parliamentary motion on any major foreign policy issue, nothing on Saddam Hussein's human rights crimes. Nothing.

When Blair swept into Downing Street on 2 May 1997, he was taking charge of Britain's role in the world with less foreign policy experience than almost any incoming prime minister since the Second World War. He had not served on any parliamentary committee dealing with foreign issues. He spoke serviceable French - an achievement among Britain's linguistically challenged MPs - but his was the typical British middle-class family's knowledge of France and Italy. He was not particularly well-travelled.

Six years on, Blair has committed UK forces, from the Operation Desert Fox air strikes against Iraq in December 1998 and Kosovo in 1999 to Sierra Leone in 2000, Afghanistan in 2002 and finally Iraq. It is a record without parallel in modern British history. In roughly 60 interviews with more than 40 people closely involved in Blair's foreign policy, I sought to find out what lay behind one simple statistic - five wars in six years. Was it simply circumstance? Or was it something about the Prime Minister?

In early 1997, with the Conservative government in its death throes, Blair asked his new right-hand man, Jonathan Powell, to organise a series of discreet meetings to talk him through the finer points of diplomacy, to go through the global hot spots one by one. Several gatherings were held in the front room in the Blairs' house in Islington, north London. At each, roughly half a dozen eminent former diplomats and academics were invited to give their views over coffee. The only condition was strict secrecy. They presented an orthodox view that relations with the US must provide the foundations for his foreign policy. Blair was in no position to challenge it, nor did he want to. He was convinced he could reconcile the "special relationship" with a more positive approach to Europe. One participant recalls: "The thing that attracted me about Blair was his intelligence and willingness to listen. The thing that alarmed me was his almost complete lack of knowledge of detail."

Blair took their advice to heart. The Foreign Office was relieved. John Major had managed to antagonise both Bill Clinton and the Europeans, and Blair promised to be different. Although the Labour Prime Minister and Democratic president did argue, famously over the threat to deploy troops in Kosovo, it seemed that Blair had succeeded where his predecessors had failed. He had not needed to choose between the two continents.

His relationship with George W Bush undermined that. It was Clinton himself, shortly before he left office, who advised Blair that he must keep on the right side of the incoming Republican president. Blair needed no convincing. From the outset, he told his team to do nothing to antagonise the Americans. The fear initially was not that they would intervene too much, but that they would withdraw into a new era of isolationism. In January 2001, Blair sent over Powell and several other members of his team: their task was to win influence in the tightly knit Bush camp. In the eight months between Bush's inauguration and the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Blair made sure he did nothing to antagonise the White House. No matter what the US decision - to construct a National Missile Defence system, to scupper the Kyoto negotiations, halt talks to curb biological weapons or water down efforts to reduce small arms - Blair made sure any criticism was sotto voce. The Foreign Office was already becoming agitated. There seemed no bottom lines in the Blair approach to America.

The problem was raised with Jack Straw as soon as he took over as Foreign Secretary in June 2001. "It became very clear from very early on in the brainstorming meetings Jack had that handling the Bush administration would be by far the hardest challenge," an official recalls. At one meeting attended by Blair, a senior official remarked: "The trouble with the special relationship is: what do we get back?" Even members of the Prime Minister's Office were concerned. John Sawers, one of his private secretaries at the time, suggested to Blair that he "hadn't cashed in his chips with Clinton", and should try to get his way as much as possible with Bush.

The events of 11 September removed whatever doubts Blair might have had about giving unflinching support to the US. In the terrifying first few days, he saw his role as steadying American nerves. His globe-trotting that autumn, taking him several times to the US, to Russia, Pakistan, Syria and all points European, convinced him of his powers of persuasion. He encouraged Vladimir Putin to allow the US to use military bases in central Asia. General Pervez Musharraf was prevailed upon to switch allegiances and abandon Pakistan's support of the Taliban. Blair pushed hard on the Middle East peace process, acting as a lobbyist inside the US administration against the Pentagon and the vice-president's office. It was discreet. He believed he was getting somewhere. Others around him were not so sure.

One event shattered Blair's confidence. He had invested so much in the Bush relationship. He worked from the assumption that he would be kept in the loop, that he would be consulted. Then came the president's State of the Union speech in January 2002 and the infamous line about an "axis of evil". That pledge to take the war on terror to Iraq, Iran and North Korea confirmed the fears of many around Blair that the British were bit-part players. Neither Blair nor anyone in his entourage had been given advance warning.

They tried to make light of it. Blair told them to face the "new realities". He hurried to catch up. Increasingly, his speeches tended to link Saddam and alleged weapons of mass destruction with the threat from al-Qaeda - even though the intelligence coming into Downing Street showed no such link.

Three months later, at the US president's ranch in Crawford, Texas, Blair agreed in principle to Bush's decision to go to war with Iraq. He conveyed that only to his tight circle. The only points left open were the timing and the terms. Blair emerged from each of their summits hoping rather than knowing that he had got through to the president. It was on that basis that British foreign policy was being conducted, to the consternation of many diplomats in the Foreign Office.

Blair needed cover for war. A UN resolution was the means. In September at Camp David, Blair told Bush that if he swallowed his distaste for international institutions and sought a mandate from the UN, the British would ensure it was delivered. When the vote at the Security Council turned out to be unanimous, the chances of persuading Saddam to "comply" increased - but they were still small. In any case, with hindsight, if no WMDs were discovered, what exactly did compliance amount to? On 7 December 2002, the US neoconservatives had what they needed - the green light for war. Saddam's 12,000-page arms declaration was dismissed out of hand.

The war to which Blair had committed himself in principle in April was now inevitable. The frantic search for a second resolution at the UN was for his benefit, and his alone. The French had made clear from an early stage that they had no interest in supporting a vote that was mere diplomatic face-saving for the Prime Minister. The Americans knew that, too, and became exasperated at the contortions the British were putting everyone through at the UN. Even those around the cabinet table who supported some form of action against Saddam could not believe how Blair had narrowed his options.

Straw's last-minute memo suggesting that Britain stop short of sending troops epitomised the concerns shared privately by several. In Downing Street, in the small coterie on which the Prime Minister depended, there was a determination to see the process through, to defend it and defend their boss. But even those closest to him had their doubts. This was Blair's war, not the government's war, least of all the party's.

So how did a man who, after Kosovo, seemed to have the world at his feet miscalculate so badly? Two months ago, I was talking to a minister, a loyalist in public. He asked me for three adjectives that summarised Blair and his foreign policy. I offered: hubristic, naive, but well-intentioned. His three were more damning.

John Kampfner's Blair's Wars is published by Simon & Schuster on 22 September