OPINION: Tide of opinion on war has turned against Blair

Tony Blair didn't have one of his new press conferences at the end of December. This was fortunate for him because he may have been forced to talk about his wife. Defending his position on war with Iraq is obviously more important because this month the press conference was back on.

Blair and his advisers know he has clearly been losing the PR battle over Iraq, and that's partly because he is the only one defending his own position.

It didn't take one of my regular visits to the 'strangers' bar in Westminster to learn that many Labour MPs are unhappy with Blair's line. We are not just talking about the usual suspects here. I reckon that at least half the PLP would vote against war in a free vote at the moment, and the opposition isn't just confined to the back benchers.

Cabinet Minister Clare Short has been open with her anti-war views and there has been a deafening silence from most of the rest of the cabinet.

It is obvious too that Jack Straw isn't as gung ho for war as Blair, which is why he said last week that the chance of war was now 60-40 against.

There is a strong suspicion that Downing Street was so furious with Straw that they sanctioned Geoff (buff) Hoon's strong rebuttal of the Foreign Office line.

The normal press briefings and twisting of people's arms won't work though, because the opponents of war now know that public opinion is on their side. There is little support in the country for a war against Iraq unless it can be proved that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction and that the UN sanctions war. Bush may have support from a US population most of whom don't even know where Iraq is, but Blair does not have the backing of the British electorate, most of whom think that it's all about oil.

Despite his lone efforts Blair has lost the propaganda war so far because there simply is no evidence that Saddam is a threat to us. There has been clever propaganda about the threat of terrorism, including the over-the-top reaction to a supposed poison attack which even managed to implicate asylum seekers. However, the Prime Minister, despite his best efforts, has not been able to link any of this to Saddam.

Until now the tactic over the war has been similar to that on the euro: make everyone believe it is inevitable and people will accept it. Pictures of troops leaving for the Gulf and now one of our aircraft carriers leaving Portsmouth harbour give the impression that - bar the fighting - the war has already started.

Judging by the opinion polls the signs are that this tactic isn't working.

Even Gordon Brown, who is normally happy to give the funds for Blair's foreign sorties, is having second thoughts. He usually thinks that as long as the Prime Minister is strutting the world stage it gives him the chance to run things back home. This time though, he must be very worried.

The Chancellor always has a much better feel for the views of the Labour Party members and, unlike Blair, cares what they think, and not just because it is they who will decide who eventually replaces his old friend. Brown knows that war is even more unpopular with the Party members than it is with the back benchers.

Tony Blair, though, isn't the sort of person to give up and he used his press conference to try and regain the initiative. The problem is he said nothing new.

Nothing the Prime Minister says matters much unless he can persuade the whole Government machine to sing from the same hymn sheet as they were when attacking the firefighters. Blair says their strikes are wrong and dangerous. He has yet to convince anyone that the same can be said of Saddam Hussein.

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