When Tony Blair rose to address a packed House of Commons on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, Albert Finney had just won an Emmy for his performance as Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm. The coincidence was certainly not lost on the prime minister, who has lent George W. Bush a bust of the great man to mark their special bond. But for all the parallels implicit in the moment, there were no Churchillian flourishes in Blair’s rhetoric or growls in his delivery: This was the theater of understatement. Blair’s manner was a coded reassurance that he hasn’t been seduced by the excitable American, even as he sticks to him like a tick on a Texas longhorn. A consummate lawyer, he laid out his case for military action if Saddam refuses to comply with the United Nations.
Given Labour’s huge majority–and the Tories’ hot support for American belligerence–Blair’s speech was aimed more at the doubters in his own party than at his parliamentary opposition. Yet in the end his lengthy catalogue of Iraqi defiance and suspicious procurements (specialized vacuum pumps, anhydrous hydrogen fluoride and 60,000 aluminum tubes) was most significant for what it didn’t say. The words “regime change” were never mentioned; the word “America” only once. Though all of us in the chamber knew that the United States was the driving force behind this précis of Iraqi violations, Blair studiously maintained the fiction that it was a purely British exercise.
The doubters were not convinced. While holding no brief for Saddam, the Liberal Democrats’ Charles Kennedy detected “more than a hint of imperialism” in America’s rush to war. Under a barrage of questions from his own backbenchers, Blair tried to please his audience while carefully avoiding any rift with Washington. No, “regime change” is not the object of our policy, but it would be “a wonderful thing.” Yes, Britain will proceed through the UN, but if a suitable resolution can’t be agreed on, “we have to find a way of dealing with it.” Pressed to come clean on whether he would follow the United States to war without UN approval, America’s First Buddy declared his allegiance. “I believed this before I became prime minister,” he said passionately, “but I believe it even more strongly–in fact, very strongly; it is an article of faith with me–that the American relationship and our ability to partner America in these difficult issues is of fundamental importance, not just to this country but to the wider world.” Denied the opportunity to vote on anything of substance, fifty-three Labour members registered their protest on a technicality.