Hedging their bets
British Prime Minister Tony Blair faces cabinet opposition on war with Iraq that could well end in "regime change" in Britain, writes James Corbett in London
Tony Blair's seemingly inexorable march towards war in Iraq has been marked by a remarkable show of unity by members of his government. Even when the House of Commons voted on the issue a fortnight ago, a backbench revolt of 122 Labour Party MPs attracted much notice, but came without any ministerial backing.
Britain's former leader of the House of Commons and senior cabinet minister for parliamentary affairs and a former foreign minister resigned in protest of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's hawkish stance on Iraq
Last week, however, the first serious cracks in the veneer of parliamentary and ministerial support for Blair began to show. Claire Short, the international development secretary, described Blair's approach to Iraq as "reckless", adding that she would resign should Britain go to war without a second UN resolution. Days later, her cabinet colleague, Robin Cook, broadly hinted that he too would quit without a fresh UN mandate. As the geo-political climate heated still further, similar murmurings amongst lower ranking ministers and aides also began to abound around the tea rooms and bars of the Commons.
While the resignation of either Short or Cook would be a blow to Blair as he approaches his Iraqi endgame, their departures would ultimately do little to undermine the prime minister's position in the short term, nor would they fundamentally alter his course. Perhaps more intriguing are the possibilities of what a revolt now would cause later.
Short is one of only two members of Blair's cabinet to have continuously held onto their brief since Labour gained power in 1997, despite -- or maybe because of -- being perceived as a throwback to the bygone days of old Labour, an era when the party talked in terms of nationalisation and disarmament. Although her department is small, it is influential on a global scale; and while her passionate campaigning on issues such as the eradication of Third World debt has attracted much praise amongst the Left, Short is no panderer to their sympathies. In 1999, for instance, she was one of the most fervent supporters of NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia.
Yet it is inescapable that Short -- for many of Labour's grassroots members -- is a last link to the party's old values. The re- alignment of Labour to within inches of the political centre has, for many of its rank and file, only been made palatable because the likes of Short have been included at cabinet level. If she leaves the government, many of those who have not already left the party will do so.
Talk of Short putting together a leadership challenge to topple Blair is, nevertheless, the stuff of left-wing fantasy, and, if played out, would only be a symbolic stance. More interesting is the potential threat posed by Cook. During Labour's first period of office, Cook -- one of the architects of New Labour -- rode high as foreign secretary, extolling grand promises of an "ethical foreign policy", and not always doing a bad job of it either. His fall from grace was stunning. A day after helping win a second general election in June 2001, he was axed by Blair and given the stark choice between a token position in government -- as leader of the House of Commons -- or a life in the wilderness of the backbenches.
He plumped for the former option, but Cook's sense of betrayal and grievance with the prime minister was unmistakable. Indeed, the 21 months since his demotion have been characterised by his thinly veiled opposition to everything from US use of the Diego Garcia air base to Blair's vision of a reformed House of Lords. Of his unease on the Iraqi question, privately he has made little secret in his briefings to Westminster correspondents, although his public utterances -- until last week anyway -- have been more cryptic.
In many ways, Cook is as supreme a political animal as Blair, despite lacking the premier's populist appeal. It could well be that he is waiting for the optimum moment before striking with a resignation, or maybe, if Britain should go to war without a second resolution and party opinion dictated it, a leadership challenge.
Certainly, Cook would be a figure who could unite both sides of the party and serve as a more credible opponent than Short, although the chances of him toppling Blair would also be small. There may be little love lost between Blair and many Labour Party members -- never more so than now -- but, historically, Labour treats those who have been disloyal, no matter what their reasons, as pariahs.
A failed leadership challenge could, however, open up a third possibility: that Blair will go of his own accord. The contrast between Britain's bright-eyed young leader of even a year ago to the man of today is startling. He looks tired, gaunt and as if he's had enough. While his sense of conviction has won him admirers -- he has frequently faced hostile interviewers and audiences (culminating in his being slow hand-clapped live on TV last week) -- his words on Iraq have seldom won over critics. It seems that, at times, the Blair magic has wilted with his fresh face. Should he be challenged -- so long as the war is over -- he may well call it a day while he is still (just about) ahead.
And then there is the Granita Pact. Nine years ago, when, against the odds, Blair outflanked all his rivals in the race to become leader of the Labour Party, he met his friend and prime contender for the job, Gordon Brown, in Islington's Granita restaurant. Here, legend has it, they thrashed out a deal whereby Brown would step aside to allow Blair to stand unchallenged as leader. The provisos were that once in government, Brown would serve as chancellor and Blair would eventually make way for him to become prime minister. The story goes that that time would be midway through a second term of government: a day which quickly approaches.
It would be wrong to write off Blair yet though, or question his appetite for the job. War with Iraq could make his prime ministership. For years, he has been accused of lacking conviction or a big idea in his leadership; of being all spin and no substance. Finally, with Saddam Hussein, he has found a cause -- some say a crusade -- in which he is passionate in his righteousness. Many unequivocally disagree with him, but other doubters are beginning to question their own opinions, based purely on the strength of Blair's own sense of belief. If he is proved true in what he says about the threat posed by the Iraqi regime, he could write his name down in history; if not, he may be on the political scrapheap.