Blair gets ready to say ''sorry''

There won't be a direct apology, because the PM still believes he was right on Iraq, but his adviser

At the end of January, Tony Blair lobbied the Americans not to hold an inquiry into the elusive weapons of mass destruction. He did not want a committee to look into the same question in the UK, and he did not want Lord Butler to chair it. Now, as he puts together a "post-Iraq strategy" to improve his fortunes after the electoral drubbings of the past week, Blair is being advised that Butler's report could actually help him.

There is nothing inconsistent about Blair's posi- tion. The Prime Minister says publicly what he says privately. He believes, as he stated in his press conference on 15 June, that his decision to go to war in Iraq was right and that history will vindicate him. His confidence startles those close to him. A short while ago, I asked a Downing Street official if there was anyone left in that building who believed that the Iraqi venture had been anything but a terrible mistake. "Oh yes," he replied. "There is one."

That is why there will not, cannot, be a direct apology. And yet Labour's woeful share of the vote at the local and European elections - below the lowest expectations of campaign managers - has begun to persuade even Blair that he needs to show some limited form of contrition. His heart will not be in it, but his people are telling him he has to do it to re-engage with the party. That is where Butler, conveniently, comes in. For the past four months, Butler's team has been investigating in secret, and in some depth, the reasons behind the mistaken intelligence on Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological weapons. Some of those who have been summoned before it say they have been impressed by the manner of the questioning, and predict this will not be a Hutton Mark II.

Blair knows, having told all sides to agree to Lord Hutton's magnanimous findings in full, that he will have no choice but to accept the outcome of this latest inquiry. As before, the remit has been set narrowly, and yet there is still scope for damage. "We might be able to turn the criticism to our advantage," says one member of Blair's entourage. "It will allow Tony to express regret on the procedures, while sticking to the principles."

The plan is for Blair to admit that while the intelligence might have been wrong, it had been gathered in good faith, he had acted on it in good faith, and in any case he had secured the "right" outcome - the removal of Saddam. The expressions of regret will be framed within the context of Whitehall - the failings, it will be stated, were institutional, lessons will be learned, changes will be introduced and that will be that. The WMD issue will be revived for a few days, but Downing Street hopes that it will then be laid to rest. Whenever Blair is challenged that he misled the country by going to war on the basis of mistaken intelligence, he will reply that he has dealt with the problem by implementing the Butler recommendations.

The sanguine scenario in Downing Street is that, by the autumn, Iraq will have dropped down news schedules. Already, for the first time at his monthly meetings with the press, lobby journalists appeared to have lost interest in the aftermath of war. The passage of UN Resolution 1546 transferring sovereignty is seen as the single most important factor in Blair's survival. The assumption is that after 30 June the political discourse will change. Any bomb or assassination in Iraq (the current estimate is that anything below two major attacks a week would be manageable) will lead to offers of "assistance" to the sovereign Iraqi government by UK/US forces.

Removing Iraq from the front pages is the first step. Disconnecting it from broader discontent with the government, and Blair in particular, will be more difficult. Experienced Labour canvassers reported back a link between the war and a deeper sense of distrust. "What worried me was not so much the people who were angry with the war and who knew the details," said one Labour MP, "but the people who seemed embarrassed to talk about it." Another noted: "It might not have been top of people's list of grievances, but it was there. We could all feel it."

Top of that list was a mix of anti-Europeanism and xenophobia, harnessed by the UK Independence Party (Ukip). Older disgruntled Labour voters appeared prone to conflating the Europe issue with asylum and immigration, seeing in the combination a threat to Britishness. Their complaints about Iraq are different from those coming from what might be called the more modern left, which argues that Blair is neglecting more immediate needs in his quest for foreign military adventures.

For all his professed determination over Europe, Blair all but admitted ahead of the Brussels summit that he would not take on the sceptics this side of a general election. He was, he said, determined to make the case during a campaign for a referendum on the constitution. That, if it takes place, is between 15 and 24 months away. In the meantime, the No camp - bolstered by newspapers that Blair is more fearful of and more desperate to accommodate than ever before - will have the field to itself to consolidate its already tight grip on the debate.

When David Blunkett declared that he was "mortified" by the 26 per cent Labour had secured in the local elections, its lowest ever performance, he was choosing his words carefully. He is one of several influential figures in the cabinet and the party who do not share the Prime Minister's sanguine scenario. They argue that such is the volatility of the electorate, too much is being read into the Conservatives' reverses in the European elections at the hands of Ukip. A sizeable part of the Parliamentary Labour Party believes that Blair's position remains vulnerable. One senior figure said the onus was on him to demonstrate by the autumn that he had "got a grip".

That agenda over the next few weeks should play well with the party. Gordon Brown's Comprehensive Spending Review, which is being brought forward, will spawn a series of "good news" spending announcements for a number of departments, including Health and Transport. For the first time since the eve of war, Blair senses that he has a chance to regain the initiative on public services. Yet his interpretation of reform is likely to stoke yet more hostility from Labour MPs who want less emphasis on "choice" and more on equity.

The Chancellor's role will, as ever, be pivotal in determining levels of resistance. He, too, will be looking keenly ahead to the period around September for assessing the extent to which Blair has re-established himself as an electoral asset. John Prescott and Jack Straw, both now close to Brown, have let it be known that they will be doing the same.

Blair's escape plan is taking shape. Push the Tories on to the battleground of public services; ensure that asylum and immigration are defused as political issues; and give ground to the Eurosceptics while claiming to be doing the opposite. On Iraq, pray that the security situation improves. And express regret for mistakes over WMDs and seek to place the war in a new context.

Blair has already begun this process. Less than 24 hours after the elections debacle, he put a positive gloss on the G8 summit, telling MPs there was now a consensus, including the US, that global terrorism would not be defeated by security measures alone. "Political freedom and rising prosperity as much as force of arms will be our ultimate shield," he told them. "It is morally right that we extend democracy, cut poverty, remove the causes of conflict and instability and bring the hope of advancement to all nations."

He adopted a similar template when he declared at the annual banquet of Labour Friends of Israel that the "road map" for the Middle East was still alive. He warned the assembled diners, ever so gently, that it was in Israel's self-interest to enable the Palestinians to construct a secure and viable state. He told them that child malnutrition in the occupied territories was now at the levels of Chad and Niger. And yet, as ever with Blair, the rhetoric has outperformed the results. He has tried to portray as positive the deal that Ariel Sharon did with George W Bush in April behind his back, in which Israel pledged to withdraw from Gaza while subsuming parts of the West Bank. Blair has still to convince the White House to repudiate the Likud view, and is all too aware that until he does, his claims of influence will ring hollow.

Blair is looking to his conference speech in September to return to the themes of 2001, when he spoke of Africa being a scar on the conscience of the world and pledged to reorder the world "from the slums of Gaza to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan". He wants to use Britain's presidency of the G8 and the EU next year to push these themes, particularly debt relief in Africa. He has not given up on his "global mission"; he still sees it as central to his legacy. But from now on, wars may not feature so prominently.

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