Analysis: Blair needs to get his public on side

As the Prime Minister ponders how best to win public support for a potential war in Iraq, former Tory media director Amanda Platell argues that it is detail that will win the PR battle

Tony Blair's attempt to win over middle England began in earnest last Sunday on a famous sofa, talking to the interviewer most trusted by the public, Sir David Frost. Leaning slightly forward, the bags under his eyes testimony to the sleepless nights as he wrestled with his own conscience and a nation's future, it was time to re-connect with the British people, to get them once again to trust this straight kind of guy. And so began the PR assault in the crucial week for both Blair and President Bush to win back support for their war on Iraq.

Blair knows that the British people are not convinced - the latest polls show a hardening against military action with opposition now running at an all time high of 47 per cent - but they stand ready to be convinced.

How bizarre then that Blair's great re-connection manoeuvre had nothing to do with Iraq and everything to do with the other issue sorely agitating his people, asylum. His way of proving that he was still in touch with their real fears was to wage war on asylum seekers, using the kind of language that would get any Tory condemned as a fascist. This PR stunt was as transparent as a sheet of cling film.

In the week that the chief weapons inspector Hans Blix made his landmark finding - if finding nothing can actually be a finding, that is - Blair chose to work on his bond of trust with the people rather than provide the hard proof that they need in order to be convinced.

The least he achieved with his asylum spin was to win the approval of the right-wing press, who just happen to be pro-war as well. It is staggering that in the tabloid market alone, the pro-war newspapers have in excess of 19 million daily readers while the anti-war papers have only 5.5 million, yet opinion is still running hard against the war.

He has to make the case that we either trust him or Saddam Hussein.

And to each person who calls for a delay, Blair should make the argument that Saddam has had 12 years. It would also be worthwhile reminding people that, if you go back and read through Saddam's speeches, this is a man who inherited a Nazi ideology, believes in genocide as a racial tool and claims it is his life mission to have an apocalyptic confrontation with the US.

Blair's appearance with Cherie at the funeral of Special Branch Officer Stephen Oakes was all part of the master PR plan, to demonstrate he is a determined man at the heart of things, a man with a big heart. But as far as possible he should keep Cherie out of the limelight. These days she's about as loved as Imelda Marcos.

Despite the fact that three out of four French and Germans are against the war - even if it is specifically authorised by the UN Security Council - and Spain and Italy are currently polling 60 per cent against, the arrests across Europe last week were a cleverly orchestrated demonstration that all Europe is at risk of terrorism. This, too, helps to make the argument for war.

And forget about the search for a smoking gun - Blair needs to find a real gun if he's to convince the people there is an urgent need to take Saddam out. If he can't manage that, he needs to make the harder case for the missing Iraqi weapons.

The discovery of 16 empty chemical warheads was all very well, but he should be asking where are the other 29,984 empty chemical warheads the UN Special Commission estimated Saddam Hussein had? And he and his cabinet should be asking where are the 550 artillery shells filled with mustard gas? And the 400 biological weapons-capable aerial bombs? And the 26,000 litres of anthrax? The botulinum, the VX, the Sarin gas that the UN said he has?

One weapon conspicuous by its absence in Blair's PR arsenal - and one put to great use by Bush - is the support of high-profile clerics, diplomats and former foreign secretaries. Blair has no one to blame but himself for being in the rather unique position where he has not a single voice from any of the major churches in this country supporting his position.

In fact, the men of faith are rallied against him. That kind of support takes months of diplomacy. It is a mark of the arrogance of the man that he does not believe he has to carry great opinion-formers with him, unless of course they work for The Sun or the Daily Mail.

Blair needs to rally more support from the great and the good, his Cabinet must act as his ambassadors and convincingly, not grudgingly, make the case for war. Blair must put his entire political capital on the line.

Underneath it all, the British people have a propensity to believe he's a straight kind of guy, but he must convince us of that all over again.

My final piece of advice is this - no more silly plum suits, Mr Blair.

We will never trust a man to lead us to war who is wearing velour.

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