Tony Blair's "new humility"

Saving his skin at least for now, the British leader says he was wrong about WMD in Iraq, then quickly moves on to domestic issues.

Published September 29, 2004 2:28PM (EDT)

Tony Blair is not exactly the Madonna of British politics, constantly reinventing himself. He may have grown older and grayer, but otherwise he has remained remarkably consistent. As he told the Labor conference in Brighton: "I don't think as a human being, as a family man, I've changed at all." Yet Tuesday he presented a different Tony Blair to his party and the wider world, one altered by events and experience. He even announced the shift: "I have changed as a leader."

In the heady days of the 1990s, either on the eve of power or in the first blush of it, Blair would come on as a wide-eyed optimist, bursting with boundless self-confidence. This was the era of Britain as a "young country" or else a "beacon to the world." As one close colleague put it Tuesday, Blair was in his JFK period.

Tuesday that brimming, almost aggressive certainty was either gone or artfully concealed. Instead the prime minister displayed an unfamiliar trait: humility. As if bowing his head before the party brethren he so often used to scold, he made a remarkable admission -- confessing that he and his decisions on foreign policy were the source of "the problem of trust" now afflicting the government.

Then he uttered two sentences that must have caused physical pain to his throat: "The evidence about Saddam having actual biological and chemical weapons, as opposed to the capability to develop them, has turned out to be wrong. I acknowledge that and accept it." That brought some unscripted applause, a sense of relief that at last he had said what so many had longed to hear.

He didn't give the full "sorry," but like the liberal parent who does not demand complete humiliation from a remorseful child, the Labor tribe took what they could get. The language was lawyerly -- "I can apologize for the information that turned out to be wrong," he said, rather than I do apologize -- but he seemed to get away with it. An almost apology was good enough.

The key was in the tone; not the words, but the music of the speech. Blair did not bang the podium, laying down the law to his party -- the default position of old. Rather, he sought sympathy. People had seen him "struggling" with the dilemma of Iraq. It had been "hard" and he had worked desperately to find a way out. "There has been no third way this time. Believe me, I looked for it."

It was all a long way from the dogmatic assertiveness on show as recently last year, when Blair told his troops: "I've not got a reverse gear." There were no such Thatcheresque declarations Tuesday. Instead he soliloquized his self-doubt. "Do I know I'm right? ... I'm like any other human being, as fallible and as capable of being wrong."

He could hardly have gone much further. A full mea culpa, an admission that he had made a historic error in Iraq, would have sounded like a resignation speech. But he could not have done much less either. Antiwar sentiment is sufficiently strong, in Brighton and beyond, that a defiant "I was right and you're all wrong" might have turned a mood into a movement.

So Blair probably struck the right tone -- somewhere in between. And for that moment, in the hall, it seemed to work. When a lone antiwar protester heckled, he received no backing. Cheers were reserved for the P.M.'s putdown.

The substance, though, was a different matter. As critics reread the crucial passages, they may find them less and less convincing. In admittedly elegant fashion, the prime minister repeated the subliminal connection between 9/11 and Iraq -- even though no evidence links them. He posed a series of false distinctions, attributing to his critics a view none of them actually hold. He said, for example, that his opponents believed terrorism did not pose a new threat, but rather amounted to a series of acts by individual extremists. These same critics imagined "the terrorists are in Iraq to liberate it." This was straw-man politics, knocking down an enemy that does not exist.

Equally, one of his biggest applause lines was his promise -- "after November" and the U.S. election -- to make the Middle East peace process a personal priority. No one could be against that.

But a moment's reflection stirred skeptical thoughts. Wasn't he supposed to have won movement on this from Bush already, in return for London's dogged support on Iraq? Indeed, hadn't Blair promised "final status" Palestinian-Israeli talks by Christmas in his conference speech of 2002 -- a commitment that led precisely nowhere? In other words, there were some skillful debating moves Tuesday but hardly an argument built to last. Few of those who have opposed the P.M. on foreign policy grounds for nearly two years are likely to have been won over.

The other four-fifths of the speech put Blair where he has long wanted to be, back on the domestic agenda. The new humility did the trick nicely in this sphere, too. He was no longer hectoring the Labor Party, but setting out a "mission" for the third term that they could join with enthusiasm. Some found Blair's packed 10-point program a tad too detailed, with too many policies to take in. But that may have been deliberate. Some of the P.M.'s internal enemies charge that he has run out of ideas, that he has no vision for the third term. This was his response, opening up a cupboard that spills out schemes and plans.

If it was boring, it was deliberately, reassuringly boring: Look how many ideas I have up my sleeve! Some were familiar, others will excite -- the plans for universal childcare among them. The cumulative effect was to realize the extent Labor dominates the domestic landscape. Blair felt no need to address the Conservative view on these questions, as if they have no view worth addressing. If it wasn't for Iraq, one suspects, Labor's command of British politics would be total and unprecedented.

In these passages Kremlinologists could divine a few tilts within the titanic Tony Blair-Gordon Brown struggle. The P.M. came out clearly for "choice" in public services -- a word the chancellor had avoided in his own speech on Monday. He also referred to a national "consensus" on Labor policies. The Brownite fear is that that consensus has not yet been established, so there was a whiff of rebuttal here, too.

But these were mere details. Mainly Brighton gave a warm, if not wild, embrace to a leader who many assumed would either be gone or in deep peril by now.

He did what he had to do, ticking every box in workmanlike fashion. He returned to bread-and-butter politics and showed a humbler face. The cheers and ovations may have been encouraged (if not stage-managed), but the final impression was of a leader who is not about to be removed in a party coup. Still, that was yesterday. How long the "healing," as Blair called it, lasts is a different question. Tellingly, there was no standout line from the speech, a phrase that will be quoted and requoted. This may be an address that did its job on the day, but will not last much longer.

By Jonathan Freedland

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