Blair flies into the eye of the storm

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TROUBLE follows when elected leaders go abroad for more than a few days during times of political intrigue. With the power centre abroad, plotters have a free reign - and chaos often follows.

"Crisis? What crisis?" was the paraphrased version of Jim Callaghan’s comments as he returned to a winter of discontent from a Caribbean summit in 1979. Yesterday, Tony Blair knew his crisis only too well.

Today, the Prime Minister may talk about the G8, Poland and reconstruction in Iraq, but none of this matters when he stands accused of deceiving Britain over Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

The initials - WMD - chased Mr Blair round each of the five countries he visited on his six-day trip. Now back in London, he must try to kill the controversy on its home ground.

The tour, the most extensive the jet-loving Prime Minister has yet embarked upon, was at once a resounding success and an unmitigated disaster. On foreign soil, the trip could not have gone better; its impact in London couldn’t have been worse.

Defeat has been snatched from the jaws of victory - purely as a result of a spin stoked by Mr Blair’s growing number of enemies while the Prime Minister and his closest advisers were out of the country.

The first sign of trouble for Mr Blair came in the sweltering heat of Saddam’s former palace in Basra, used as the headquarters of the Desert Rats. As 150 of them were waiting to be addressed by the Prime Minister, the WMD story broke.

BBC Radio 4’s Today programme was running an item suggesting that senior intelligence sources claimed Mr Blair doctored the Iraq WMD dossier which he released last September. British troops, the suggestion was, were sent into war based on a lie concocted in No10.

On a normal day, Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair’s head of communications, would start monitoring the Today programme at 6am from his bathtub. But last Wednesday, he was in an RAF Hercules heading to Basra, well beyond the reach of normal mobile phones.

The BBC report was filed by Andrew Gilligan, Today’s defence correspondent, who has a history of irritating the government with stories gleaned from his Ministry of Defence contacts. To No10, he is a familiar pest.

So when Mr Blair’s aides reached the Basra palace, the name "Gilligan" could be heard echoing with a mixture of contempt and anxiety.

It could not have come at a worse moment. The Prime Minister was minutes away from addressing victorious British troops in an impeccably-organised event which would fittingly sum up the Iraq war.

Rather than dignify the story with a long denial (which would guarantee it being repeated in later bulletins) Mr Campbell issued a short dismissal: "Wholly untrue."

To the 30 journalists with Mr Blair in Iraq, this seemed acceptable - none had heard the radio programme and they would spend the rest of the day in military helicopters before a five-hour flight to Poland.

But in London, the WMD story was taking on a life of its own. Labour rebels who opposed the war saw a way in which they may, even now, be proved right. A series of briefings ensured the "Blair lied" line dominated the news.

On day two of his tour, Mr Blair was visibly furious. He had woken up in Warsaw to learn how the WMD story had upstaged his victory tour - even the image of the Iraqi boy kissing him at the British-built school. At 9am, he was due to give a joint statement with Leszek Miller, Poland’s prime minister. But such was his anger that he decided to hijack his own press conference with the WMD story.

Without being asked about it directly, the Prime Minister issued a staunch denial. "The idea that we authorised, or made our intelligence agencies insert some piece of evidence is completely absurd," he said - answering a question no-one had really asked.

Noticing a bemused Mr Miller, who had no idea why Mr Blair had launched off on this topic, Mr Blair checked himself: "I’ve probably said enough."

He had, and WMD was again the next day’s dominant story - overriding his thoughtful and revealing speech about the future of Europe. That day in Warsaw, he laid out his vision of the EU - a manifesto for taking Britain into the single currency and a marker laying down his case to become president of the European Union.

But while Mr Blair was so visibly rattled, the story was elsewhere - and his speech would be a spin failure. On the plane to St Petersburg, he did not brief journalists travelling with him as he had en route to Kuwait.

On Friday, No10 had picked up some other alarming news. The Guardian newspaper had what purported to be a transcript of a conversation which added a damning new dimension to the WMD story.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and Colin Powell, his US counterpart, were said to have discussed WMD and concluded the evidence was a sham. Another bomb was about to drop.

The next lunchtime, Tom Kelly, one of Mr Blair’s two official spokesmen, was holding a briefing in the bar of the Soviet-style, 1,400-room St Petersburg hotel, converted from a de facto brothel into a media centre.

He briefed about G8, and how Mr Blair had met various people for dinner the evening before. But the only story in town was WMD. So he set about dismissing the Guardian story.

It was nonsense, because Mr Straw and Mr Powell did not meet on the date the Guardian stated. But did they meet on another date? It wasn’t clear. The fudged denial suggested the story had at least a grain of truth.

By then, the focus was on a leaker. Mr Kelly’s language seemed to suggest No10 was looking for a mole who was systematically leaking the information - and torpedoing Mr Blair’s trip. There was a reference to "people who speak as if they are in the know, but are not" and assurances that Mr Blair’s relationship with intelligence chiefs is exceptionally close. This only added to the intrigue.

The Sunday newspapers were disastrous for Mr Blair. Clare Short, who resigned after the Iraq war, had claimed Britain had been "duped" by the dossier, the worst of a raft of damaging front pages.

That morning, it was a far less upbeat Mr Blair who made his way to the economy section of his chartered Boeing 777 to brief journalists en route to the G8 in Evian. He had, by now, decided to fight this all the way.

Once again, the story was not Mr Blair at the G8 but a Prime Minister battling accusations from his own ministers and disaffected backbenchers.

While the Prime Minister was greeting Jacques Chirac, the French president, Ms Short was on BBC television giving a live version of her accusations. It seemed to have raised a rallying flag to fellow rebels.

The most damning comment came from Malcolm Savidge, the Aberdeen North MP - for Labour - who said that if Mr Blair doctored the dossier it would be "worse than Watergate". Whether he felt emboldened by the distance between him and the Prime Minister, or whether he was trying to raise his profile in the forthcoming battle to keep his seat, such a remark amounted to mutiny.

By Sunday morning, Mr Blair had all but abandoned his G8 agenda and threw himself into the fight against Ms Short and Robin Cook (who had joined in through a Sunday radio interview). The Prime Minister came to the press centre to fight back and felt, instantly, that it had been left without air conditioning by the French organisers. It was time to sweat, and the Prime Minister seemed to be imagining the next day’s pictures.

"It’s hot in here - just as well we’re in Evian, with lots of water," he said. He then went as close as he dared to calling Ms Short a liar. The strategy had switched from ignoring the WMD story into trying to shout it down.

Mr Blair arrived in London just before 11am yesterday, leaving without waiting to hear Mr Chirac’s closing G8 remarks. There were other battles to be fought.

Today’s Prime Minister’s Question Time will be only the first. The Conservatives’ formal strategy is to let Labour destroy itself - it will not shy from a chance to let rebels like Mr Savidge snipe at the Prime Minister.

Downing Street may well launch its own formal investigation into his dossier - knowing that its weakness is the staleness of evidence published, not the outlandishness of its claims.

If Mr Blair is found to have lied, he cannot survive politically. It will not come to this, but, until he acquits himself, WMD may follow him to the euro debate next Monday.

Whatever the fightback plan today, it is now clear that his victory tour in Basra was premature. Seven weeks after the fall of Baghdad, the Prime Minister is still fighting the Iraq war.

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