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24 September 2001

Blair secures his flank against the right

Terror in America: Britain - Jackie Ashley, our political editor, reports that the PM is gu

By Jackie Ashley

Even his professional enemies in politics have been saying privately in recent days that Tony Blair is made for a crisis. Within minutes of the appalling pictures of the terrorist attack being shown on television, while most people were standing staring in speechless disbelief, the Prime Minister emerged at the TUC conference with appropriate words of shock and determination.

Since then, he has barely stopped telephoning, travelling, cajoling, arguing, explaining. He has done the rounds of other European leaders, spoken at length to George Bush, written to and called moderate Arab leaders, spoken to the president of China and to African leaders, heard endless scenarios and possibilities sketched out, and warned this country of the gravity of what we face. It may all end terribly. The one big decision he had to take was whether to stick closely by Washington or stand aside; for good or ill, he took it instantly and instinctively, and has not wavered. If that means Britain comes under attack, too, and suffers for that, today’s supportive public opinion may yet turn against him.

But no one can say the man is not a leader. London is full of people who hope that Blair’s tough talking in public is helping him moderate and calm President Bush in private. Downing Street people tell me this is only partly true, and that it is more complicated than that.

The seemingly stoopid Georgy Dubbya may not be verbally felicitous, but he is proving more astute than many had feared – partly, no doubt, because of the influence of the former soldier Colin Powell, who knows as well as anyone what is, and what is not, militarily possible. Despite the rising rhetoric, there has not yet (as the New Statesman goes to press) been the volcanic eruption of American anger on Afghan civilians that many people feared.

It is much too early to say how the Prime Minister is really doing, how much influence on the US he really has, and how long he will keep public opinion on-side. The outbursts from Labour dissenters such as Tam Dalyell and George Galloway – and the not-very-coded warning from Clare Short – spoke for a minority. But the pollsters already tell us that the backing for military strikes will fall sharply if it turns into a long-drawn-out war. My guess is that, once people understand some of the measures ahead, with the possible introduction of ID cards, pan-European arrest warrants and new laws on extradition, the left/libertarians will become more vocal. The Labour Party conference should be interesting on that score.

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But now that ministers have warned of possible gas, biological and nuclear attacks, the government will keep the majority with it. The Tories have nowhere to go as long as Blair stays so close to Washington; they will back him on every security measure, and can only nod their heads at most of what he says. Iain Duncan Smith’s offer to put party politics aside and even join cabinet committees was nothing more than a publicity gesture – incidentally, made only to the press, not to Downing Street itself. On this biggest of issues, Blair will not be easily overtaken from the right.

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This is not to say, however, that he simply sounds like an echo of Republican Washington. He immediately stressed that most Muslims abhorred terrorism and should not be blamed for the actions of a few fanatics. It was a message that Bush repeated. And Blair’s long conversations with the other European leaders have given him a range of opinions that the White House rarely taps into.

Cabinet ministers smile ruefully and shake their heads when they talk about how “gung-ho Tony is” but they also admit that his energy has given him a world leadership role few British prime ministers can hope for.

No, the real question is what happens to the left and the Liberal Democrats when things get harder. Is this going to be a time when Blair, with the support of Middle England, unsticks himself further from the affection and support of the Labour movement?

And what about the Lib Dems? Charles Kennedy did not make an inspiring speech in the Commons, but here is a party that may well speak for the doubters, once those cruise missiles start flying. But before everybody joins the easy anti-Blair chorus, it is worth thinking about what might have happened if he hadn’t sounded so angry and crisp and clear, and hadn’t backed Bush.

There were two fears about the Americans: first, that they would respond immediately to the raw anger they feel and blast everything in sight; second, that they would retreat into isolationism, with little care for the wider world picture. The spectre of a war between Islam and America would have been more real. Yes, we cannot really know what is happening inside the White House and State Department, but if the cooler heads are prevailing, that must be partly because of the huge coalition of outside support that the US is getting – a coalition nobody has worked harder to build than Blair.

This story is just starting. If we mass-bomb innocent civilians and provoke a new wave of anger in the Islamic world, it can still get worse. If Bin Laden’s men strike again, perhaps in Britain, it can get a lot worse. If the coalition breaks down, with the Arab states bickering and no agreement in the west about what to do, if Pakistan combusts internally . . . things will be much, much worse. All we can say is that Blair seems to know what he’s doing, and so long as he does, the rest of British political life is virtually suspended, following his every move. And, in a terrifying, confusing situation, he doesn’t seem terrified or confused.

That in itself is quite an achievement.