Like Kaa the python in Disney’s Jungle Book, Tony Blair has staked his career on a single hypnotic refrain. Interviewed on TV, he contrives to sound like a man vouchsafing a confidence: “Look, in all honesty…” His rhetorical home is the moral high ground; harried in the House, he likes to make his opponents look petty, their concerns nit-picking distractions from his far-reaching vision. He himself is always above suspicion. If the government bungles, decoy ministers are deployed to take the flak; if party unity cracks, implausible rumors of Blair’s impending fall are mobilized to rally the dissenters.
The transatlantic furor about Saddam’s missing weapons comes at a very bad moment for Blair. Though the war’s statue-toppling photo finish briefly mesmerized the masses, the government’s I-told-you-so’s ring increasingly hollow as weeks go by without the discovery of a single grain of anthrax or vial of poison gas. As if on cue, six British soldiers in Iraq were killed in a single day, reminding everyone of the real cost of war. The damage Blair has done to his party by dragging it unwillingly to war becomes more obvious; his autocratic style of government is thrown into sharp relief. The man who constantly asks us to trust him clearly trusts almost no one. This June’s “botched reshuffle” pushed through overdue constitutional changes–including the abolition of the 1,400-year-old office of Lord Chancellor, the unelected head of the judiciary–without consulting Parliament or even the Cabinet. It was Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith who saved Blair’s bacon, by rounding so crudely on the government that even the backbenchers momentarily closed ranks. The following week Peter Hain, newly appointed Leader of the House of Commons, broke a New Labour taboo by hinting that a tax rise for the very rich might ease the pressure on middle-income earners; Blair took time out from the EU summit in Greece to force him to recant. This crude attempt at censorship backfired everywhere. Right-wing tabloids went to town on Labour’s “leaked” plans to “soak the rich”; liberal broadsheets shook their heads at Blair’s “Stalinist” tactics. The dwindling number of Labour supporters who saw in Hain’s remarks a flicker of official willingness to think about taxation and our cash-starved public services had their hopes dashed yet again.
Blair’s paranoid caution on the T-word makes an instructive contrast with his willingness to risk his whole career for the invasion of Iraq. There’s little doubt he did this out of passionate conviction–so passionate that mere facts could not stand in its way. He gave Churchillian speeches on the dangers of inaction; he went into the lion’s den of handpicked hostile audiences on live prime-time TV; he called on history to be his judge. And, in pursuit of some higher truth, he or his close associates exaggerated–some would say falsified–evidence of the threat from Iraqi weapons, which formed the vaunted legal basis for the war.