Blair must be praying war does not drag on
DAVID Blunkett let the cat out of the bag yesterday by effectively suggesting Tony Blair will be frozen out by the Labour Party if war is still raging in Iraq in six months time.
The Home Secretary’s portent appeared more ominous when, only hours later, the first hints that war could last until summer emerged from US central command in the Qatar desert.
Like many of the Cabinet ministers dispatched to do the rounds of the television studios in defence of the Prime Minister, Mr Blunkett yesterday dismissed talk of another Labour rebellion in the Commons.
In keeping with his reputation as a staunch Blairite, he brushed aside talk of a fresh bid to undermine the Premier if the war against Iraq drags on without a breakthrough.
Asked by Sir David Frost on the BBC if he thought a rebellion was likely, Mr Blunkett replied with a curt: "No, I do not."
But he wobbled on the question of how Mr Blair would be received at Labour’s annual party conference if it transpired the war had lasted not days or weeks, but months.
"Would a conference in a prolonged confrontation be difficult?" said Mr Blunkett. "Yes it would. And I don’t think there would be any mistake about that." It is clear Mr Blair needs to regain and maintain his authority as Prime Minister and, most especially, as Labour leader as the conflict in Iraq wears on. His Cabinet is united.
Even Clare Short, the voluble International Development Secretary, has battened down the hatches after her "reckless" jibe.
Of course, her now-shelved threat to quit may be tested most severely if the US, as expected, pushes ahead with reconstruction in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq without the UN. However, for now the Downing Street war cabinet is strong. Even dissenting MPs have been silenced.
But Mr Blair needs a short war - a conflict of any length that must by necessity be calculated in months and not weeks would be just the excuse malcontents would need to cause him domestic misery.
In short, it will be more important politically for Mr Blair to win the peace than to win the war. If it appears that in the short term Iraq will be managed by a US-based administration, Mr Blair will have failed in a key objective to ensure UN involvement.
Another further potential problem for Mr Blair will be not when, but if, weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq. If he really wants to persuade his party and a large swathe of the public he is right to call this war "just" he needs those weapons to be found soon.
If not, Mr Blair might find it difficult to explain away the costs of this war - currently 3 billion and rising - set against a tax increase that takes effect tomorrow.
Finally, two major international headaches bring up the rear of the list of Herculean tasks Mr Blair faces.
Substantial progress must be made to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict and the much-vaunted "road map to peace" must be proven more than a handy soundbite.
And the Prime Minister must somehow build bridges with European partners France and Germany.
For Tony Blair, the annual Labour Party conference, this year in Bournemouth, has never been more important.
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