OPINION: In a real war, Blair might hit the target more often

The propaganda war has been raging for many months now, and Tony Blair must be hoping and praying that the real war is much more successful.

Even up to the last minute summit in the Azores, the Number 10 PR machine has been firing blanks. What on earth possessed Alastair Campbell to allow a picture to be taken of the PM on the plane with himself standing over Blair? The last thing his boss needs is any suggestion the war is about spin, and nothing could have given that impression more than that photograph.

The PM's press spokesman seems to have wanted as much publicity as possible in recent months, forgetting the golden rule that spin doctors should not be seen or heard.

So obsessed has the Prime Minister's PR team been in its conviction that Blair is right it has abandoned all the rules of PR engagement. Did it really believe that putting its man up against Paxman and a hostile audience would win people round? The decision to place Blair in front of women against the war was even more inexplicable. Does Number 10 really believe that the electorate wants to see its Prime Minister slow handclapped live on prime time TV? It reminded me of the time that the Women's Institute humiliated the PM.

The Americans, who don't seem to give a stuff about public opinion in Europe, have not helped Blair's cause. I was in Berlin when Donald Rumsfeld called France and Germany 'old Europe'. Perhaps the US State department had forgotten about the recent reunification of Germany and the creation of a new state, but Rumsfeld's rash words probably scuppered any chance of winning a second UN resolution.

There is little doubt though that even last week Blair still believed the second resolution was in the bag, and no one knew better than the PM what a PR coup that would have been. By failing to win the all-important vote at the Security Council Blair will have to go to war politically weakened.

It's not all been bad news for the Prime Minister, though. The decision by Gordon Brown to put his full weight behind Blair meant there was no one of any stature for the Labour rebels to turn to. Brown's fulsome support for his old friend has not done his chances of eventually replacing him any harm at all. People like loyalty, and Brown will have been well aware what happened to another political giant - Michael Heseltine. He paid a very heavy price for being seen to be disloyal to his Prime Minister.

However badly Blair has handled his PR so far, war never did Margaret Thatcher any harm and the start of this conflict changes everything. With 'our boys' in battle it is likely opposition will be more muted. It will be far easier for Downing Street to control the media, who will become obsessed with reporting the action in the Gulf as opposed to the action in Westminster. Robin Cook's brilliant taking apart of Tony Blair's case and Clare Short's double somersault will soon be forgotten.

The hacks have been holed up in the Gulf for weeks, mostly in five-star hotels in Qatar and Kuwait. They certainly won't be writing anything along the lines of 'the first casualty of war is room service', as one of their colleagues wrote when his hotel got bombed during another conflict.

The PR battle will be much easier during the war. As Blair told journalists on the plane back from the Azores, public opinion would be bound to swing in his favour once the troops are engaged in battle. I can't help thinking that this will be a short war, the people of Iraq will welcome their liberation, the troops will find evidence of chemical weapons and Tony Blair will be a hero.

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