Blame me (...up to a point)

Posted in Europe | 29-Sep-04 | Author: Andrew Grice| Source: The Independent

Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair gives his keynote speech at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, September 28, 2004.

As two more British soldiers die in Iraq, Blair tries to quell war furore controversy

Tony Blair admitted yesterday that his stance on Iraq had led to a collapse in his trust ratings and appealed to Labour to set aside differences on the war and work for a historic third term.

The Prime Minister finally apologised for the flawed intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programme, but refused to say sorry for taking the country to war on a false prospectus. He told the Labour conference in Brighton: "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.

"I can apologise for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can't, sincerely at least, apologise for removing Saddam. The world is a better place with Saddam in prison not in power."

Although Mr Blair struck his most conciliatory tone on Iraq, his words failed to satisfy critics who have been demanding that he say sorry for the war. He dropped from his final draft a line saying he was "sorry" for the divisions over Iraq. An aide admitted last night: "He does not feel apologetic. He is sorry the intelligence was wrong but he was not at fault. He believes he was right. He is not contrite." The Prime Minister was speaking just hours after two British soldiers were killed on the outskirts of Basra and amid fears about the fate of the British hostage Ken Bigley.

Mr Blair's decision to address the Iraq issue "head on" was aimed at wooing "soft" critics of his Iraq policy. In the conference hall, his words on Iraq were greeted with silence by some delegates and the overall response was more muted than in recent years. His speech was twice interrupted by hecklers, first over Iraq and second by hunt supporters, who were ejected from the hall.

Mr Blair surprised observers by acknowledging that he was responsible for what he called "the problem of trust". He insisted that it was not because the Government was failing to honour its pledges on domestic policies. "It is over the decisions I have taken, the judgements about our future security I have made," he admitted.

He went on: "I know this issue has divided the country. I entirely understand why many disagree. I know, too, that as people see me struggling with it, they think, 'he's stopped caring about us' or worse, 'he's just pandering to George Bush and what's more in a cause that's irrelevant to us'."

Mr Blair, who admitted there was no "third way" over Iraq, presented his dilemma in highly personal terms. "Judgements aren't the same as facts. Instinct is not science. I'm like any other human being, as fallible and capable of being wrong.

"I don't think as a human being, as a family man, I've changed at all. But I have changed as a leader. I have come to realise that caring in politics isn't really about 'caring'. It's about doing what you think is right and sticking to it."

He insisted that he had been right to say that the problem of global terrorism had to be tackled rather than ignored. Mr Blair, who praised the two British soldiers killed yesterday and the family of Mr Bigley, dismissed criticism that America and Britain had "made matters worse not better" in Iraq. He insisted that the terrorists now in the country were "not provoked by our actions but by our existence".

He made a coded criticism of the Bush administration, saying that the way to defeat terrorism was "progressive poli- tics". "Salvation will not come solely from a gunship. Military action will be futile unless we address the conditions in which this terrorism breeds and the causes it preys upon."

Mr Blair promised to make the revival of the Middle East peace process "a personal priority" after the US presidential election in November.

He told his party that the world's problems could not be tackled without the US, but that for Britain to turn its back on Europe would be "utter self- defeating folly".

Anti-war MPs said the Iraq issue would not go away. Nick Pearce of the Blairite think- tank the Institute for Public Policy Research, said: "He has tried to meet people halfway, but when the rationale for going to war is proved wrong, people still find it hard to be convinced that what he is doing is right."