Damning exposure

IT WAS so nearly lost in the hubbub that followed the suspension of the House of Commons after repeated interruptions by anti-war protesters. But just before 1.15pm on Wednesday, the Prime Minister was exposed as either a liar or an incompetent.

Tony Blair shattered his own reputation with just 23 words in reply to a question by Tory MP Richard Ottaway, who had asked him when he discovered that intelligence suggesting Saddam Hussein could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes related to battlefield munitions, not weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In particular, was Blair aware of the distinction when MPs voted to approve war on March 18?

"No," said the Prime Minister, adding disingenuously: "I have already indicated exactly when this came to my attention. It was not before the debate on March 18 last year." Blair went on to nit-pick about the definition of WMD and the import of what he had just admitted - for the first time - initially went unnoticed. It took Robin Cook, that little thorn in the Prime Minister’s flesh, to spring the bear trap Blair had set himself. Fully three hours later, Cook rose to say he was "surprised by that answer", recalling his own resignation speech of March 18 when he "made the very point that we were considering battlefield weapons and that Saddam probably had no real weapons of mass destruction."

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It emerged Cook had been told this by John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and main author of the case for war, and that Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, had also known the true basis of the 45-minute claim. Yet even though it was published in the ‘dodgy dossier’ in September 2002 and used as ‘proof’ that Iraq could fire missiles laden with chemical and biological agents at Israel, Cyprus and beyond, the Prime Minister did not realise that this was not true.

Let’s be clear about the gravity of these revelations. When Blair made the case for war one of the key pieces of intelligence he used was wrong; civil servants knew it; his defence secretary knew it; even Cooke (by then the marginalised Leader of the House of Commons) knew it. So why didn’t the Prime Minister know it when he took the grave decision to commit our country to a war in which 50 British soldiers died?

Geoff Hoon bumbled about on Thursday insisting he had not told Blair and claiming he himself never realised the press and public had got the wrong end of the stick on the 45-minute claim because he was abroad at the time and did not read the newspaper reports. To quote an unfortunate phrase, Hoon was mere chaff in this week’s drama; anyone who understands how government works, or the vanity of politicians, realises that no minister is ignorant of the day’s headlines, however far they must be delivered.

Anyway, even if no one thought to tell Blair about the 45-minute claim, he should have asked the crucial questions himself. If we are to believe his claim that he failed to do so then the Prime Minister’s reputation as a brilliant politician with a cunning mind is sorely damaged - to the point where it was legitimate for the initially wrong-footed Michael Howard to belatedly call for Blair’s resignation.

Worse for Blair, the sceptic will find it incredible that such a sharp operator (and a barrister to trade) did not know all the facts about the most important case of his life. That sceptic might conclude that this made Blair unfit for any office, let alone the highest in the land. In light of this, it may be that the best defence the Prime Minister and President Bush can offer is that they genuinely believed Saddam was, at the very least, a threat to his own region and an acceptable target following 9/11. The moral case for war was sound but unlikely to persuade their countries to back them, and so they sought and found further casi belli.

Certainly, Blair’s claim of vindication by Hutton sounds ever more hollow, and the follow-up Butler inquiry is unlikely to shed more light on how intelligence was used to take us to war. The CIA didn’t help the Prime Minister this week when it denied suggesting the threat posed by Saddam was imminent - and Bush is now coming under the same pressures as his ally in London.

Either way, bit by bit and day by day, Blair’s argument that he acted properly looks ever thinner. Until now, like Margaret Thatcher, he has benefited from a public that likes a strong leader, despite any reservations about them. However, yesterday’s polls showed more than half think Blair lied over Iraq and should resign. It may be that, finally, Labour’s greatest asset has become its greatest liability.

Breeding resentment

AFTER almost two years lost in Scotland’s most desolate political wilderness, the Labour backbenches at Holyrood, Wendy Alexander has made a welcome return to frontline politics. Her hyperactive style irritated colleagues and drove civil servants to despair when she was a minister, but she has undoubtedly been missed. As we report today, Alexander is now calling for more family-friendly policies to halt our population decline - even taking a sideswipe at the "unrealistic, wrong-headed" alternative policy, championed by Jack McConnell, of convincing foreign graduates to stay in Scotland.

Alexander notes that while Scots families have to pay 200 a week for childcare, Scandinavian countries are "well known for their commitment to women in public life and for child-friendly policies". In particular, she cites Sweden, which gives a childcare subsidy of 20 a week for all one to six-year-olds. Such policies encourage women to combine child-rearing with having a career, asserts Alexander, and have propelled Scandinavians to the top of the fertility charts. Meanwhile, Scots trail among the breeding also-rans of Italy and Spain, where "chauvinistic" attitudes apparently force working women to limit the number of children they have.

Many people will have a basic problem with Alexander’s conclusion that public policies should be manipulated to encourage people to breed, and there is a fundamental flaw in the detail of her argument: it is easy to demand yet more subsidised childcare and better maternity and paternity rights (as one poll showed on Friday, more than half of mothers wish they were able to afford to spend more time with their kids) - but who pays for the privilege? The businesses we rely upon to create wealth? Force them to provide more staff benefits and they may take their jobs elsewhere. And while large companies like the financial giants might have the capacity to cope with long periods of parental leave, the small and medium-sized enterprises that are so vital to Scotland’s economy would struggle.

The only alternative would be for the state to pay - as happens in Alexander’s Swedish Nirvana. There, the true price is that anyone earning more than 15,780 pays 25% in national income tax plus 31% in local income tax. In Sweden the total tax take is 54.1% of Gross Domestic Product; in Britain it is just 35.9%.

As Chancellor, Alexander’s political mentor Gordon Brown has already funded subsidised childcare in Britain, but he also credits low taxes for our relative economic prosperity. Changing that to pay for bringing up baby would jeopardise the financial future for us all.