Will British voters bury their fury?

Though new revelations about secret legal advice given to Blair on going to war in Iraq are damaging, they're unlikely to sink his candidacy.

Published April 28, 2005 2:18PM (EDT)

Could this be the smoking gun? In the last U.S. presidential election, Democrats waited desperately for the killer document that would somehow blow a hole in George W. Bush's case for war on Iraq. Could the Guardian's publication Thursday of substantial parts of the British attorney general's advice to Prime Minister Tony Blair on the legality of the Iraq war play such a role in the final days of this campaign?

There is much in the document that, as Lord Lester writes in Thursday's paper, should be "devastating" for the government. First, the attorney general told the P.M. that it was for the U.N. Security Council, not him, to decide whether Iraq was complying with U.N. resolutions on disarmament or not. Yet we know it was the P.M. who made that decision.

The result was a surreal circularity, whereby the attorney ruled that war would be legal if Downing Street was sure Saddam Hussein was not complying. Downing Street said it was sure and so the attorney was satisfied. The war was legal -- because Blair said it was legal.

Second, Lord Goldsmith stated that the government would need "hard evidence" of noncompliance. Yet we know that Hans Blix and his inspectors were reporting a rising degree of Iraqi cooperation. Third, he said that even an "unreasonable veto" by a Security Council member would not allow Britain to proceed as if it had Security Council backing. Yet when France did block plans for a second U.N. resolution, the government took that as a green light for action.

Finally, it becomes clear that Blair handled this document the same way he handled the intelligence on Iraq: by stripping out the caveats. The version of the legal advice that Goldsmith presented to the Cabinet and Parliament was much less ambiguous than the one Blair had seen himself.

So what will be the political effect? It could make those angriest about the Iraq adventure angry all over again. That's bad news for Labor, which has spent much of this year trying to soothe the ire of its supporters, persuading them to "move on." Since the Iraqi elections in January, the British government has been like a parent tiptoeing around a sleeping baby, hoping nothing will disturb his slumber. With this revelation, a plate has fallen off the sideboard and crashed noisily onto the floor.

It's especially harmful because the leak touches not on the merits or conduct of the war but the honesty of its presentation -- always the most sensitive part of the issue for Blair. The timing is painful too, coming just as Conservative Party candidate Michael Howard is directly accusing the P.M. of lying, something of a campaign first.

In news management terms, Labor could not be unhappier. It wanted to go into this final stretch of the campaign closing the deal with the voters, emphasizing the choice on bread-and-butter issues between itself and the Conservatives. Now TV and radio will be full of Iraq, sending the campaign back to where Labor does not want it to be: a referendum on the past term rather than a choice for the next one.

In public-relations terms, the legal advice saga has been a disaster. As even the most junior P.R. consultant knows, it's always better to get the whole story out in one go rather than allow a drip-drip-drip of coverage to prolong the torture over several news cycles. Labor know this too -- but it preferred to cross its fingers and hope the Goldsmith document would stay secret. It has not. Bits of it are now public and more could follow.

Despite all that, this revelation is unlikely to sink Labor's campaign. For one thing, this election cannot be a straight referendum on the war, because the main opposition party supported military action. That fact is always bound to reduce the political traction of any Iraq story. Labor can justly argue that a change in government would hardly make, or have made, a difference: When it comes to Iraq, the Tories would have done the same thing.

A second hope for Labor is the anorak factor: the depressing belief that the Goldsmith question is simply too complex, detailed and arcane -- and much of it already touched on in the Butler report -- to get through to all but the most nerdy voters. Parsing subclauses of Resolution 1441 might keep John Humphrys busy, but it won't sway too many votes.

Finally, Labor will calculate that those angry about the war were already angry: Their rage was factored into the equation a while ago. The party's best hope is that most of these disaffected supporters will bury their fury -- even if it is freshly stirred by these latest revelations -- in return for the domestic good that Labor promises. In this effort, the government has been helped by the nastiness of the Conservative campaign, which, like a dog whistle, has summoned a lot of wavering Laborites back home.

So Blair will have to return to this least comfortable terrain, telling the disenchanted to hold their nose ever tighter and vote for what he promises to do next -- and not punish him for what he has done already.

By Jonathan Freedland

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