Walker's World: New crisis for Blair's War


WASHINGTON, Nov. 23 (UPI) -- This will not be a happy Thanksgiving for President George Bush, but he need just look across the Atlantic to know it could be worse. His only reliable ally, Britain's Tony Blair, now seems to be facing the full-scale parliamentary inquiry into the Iraq war -- its justification, conduct and aftermath -- that Bush has been able to avoid.

Leading opposition figures from the Conservative, Liberal-Democratic, Scottish National and Plaid Cymru (Welsh) parties have banded together to back the cross-party motion titled "Conduct of Government policy in relation to the war against Iraq" to demand that the case for an inquiry be debated in the House of Commons. They seem assured of the 200 signatures required to get such a debate -- and then the loyalty of Blair's dismayed and disillusioned Labor members of Parliament will be sorely tested.


"This apparently modest motion may be the iceberg toward which Blair's Titanic is sailing," said Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond.

Labor Party rebels have already inflicted one unprecedented defeat on Blair in this parliamentary session, and on the issue of Iraq, he commands little confidence. One leading Labor rebel, Alan Simpson, MP for Nottingham, has already signed on to the motion.

It reads: "This House believes there should be a select committee of seven Members, being Members of Her Majesty's Privy Council, to review the way in which the responsibilities of government were discharged in relation to Iraq and all matters relevant thereto in the period leading up to military action in that country in March, 2003 and in its aftermath."

There have been earlier inquiries, critical of Blair but not lethal, into the use of intelligence and other issues, but this would be the first to focus on the way the decision to go to war was reached. The inquiry would be led by senior MPs of all parties who have also been made members of the Privy Council, a medieval hangover that is mainly an honorific post but does allow its members full access to intelligence material.


The inquiry, which Blair is trying hard to fend off, comes at a difficult time, when public trust in government has sunk to a new low. A new survey by the Office of National Statistics has found that 68 percent of the public says official figures are changed to suit the politicians; 59 percent thinks the government uses official statistics dishonestly; 58 percent believes that the official figures are politically manipulated.

It also comes amid a hoist of other embarrassments for the government, including a bizarrely ham-handed attempt to use the Official Secrets Act to squash press reporting of a leaked five-page memo, stamped Top Secret. It records a conversation last year between Bush and Blair in which the British prime minister supposedly dissuaded the American president from bombing Al Jazeera TV in Qatar. The White House has dismissed the suggestion as "outlandish" after the report first appeared in the Daily Mirror, but the decision to invoke the Official Secrets Act has given the tale new prominence.

And as Britain shivers in its first winter blizzard, Blair is also under fire over soaring fuel bills for natural gas. Under hostile questioning in Parliament Tuesday, Blair admitted the country faced "difficulties with gas prices" but insisted the energy industry was doing its best to meet the surging demand. Spot prices for natural gas have risen alarmingly, jumping by a third on Tuesday.


Then there is the flu problem, which had Blair also admitting to Parliament that this year's demand for flu vaccine was unforeseen. And Health Minister Patricia Hewitt then made the mistake of blaming the doctors for over-providing the vaccine to people not deemed at risk.

There is little sign of relief for Blair, even when he travels. Even Britain's traditional partners in the Commonwealth, the 53-nation grouping of former British colonies, will be pressing him hard Friday at their meeting in Malta to get the European Union to relax its stubborn defense of European food subsidies and tariff barriers at the upcoming world trade talks.

Although Blair currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU council, his chances of getting the EU to do his bidding are very slim indeed. Indeed, Blair's partners in the 25-nation EU are furious with him for failing to achieve a budget agreement for the coming 7-year period. The crux of the issue for the EU is whether Britain is prepared to compromise on the annual $5 billion rebate it gets from the sums it pays into the EU's annual budget of $120 billion. Margaret Thatcher won the rebate over 20 years ago, when Britain was one of the poorer members of the EU, but it is now one of the richest. Britain has the second biggest economy after Germany and a higher gross domestic product per capita than the Germans -- and the poorer new member states from Eastern Europe such as Poland are outraged that some of their EU money is being held back to pay the British rebate.


The Europeans want Blair to accept that the rebate be capped at its current level, rather than rising over time and with inflation. That would cost Britain some $25 billion over the next seven years, and for Blair to be seen abandoning Thatcher's rebate would be close to political suicide. Blair tried to make a deal, compromising on the rebate in return for France compromising on the Common Agricultural Policy and its protection for French farmers. France's President Jacques Chirac has issued the bluntest of refusals, and French ministers have jumped on the chance to distract attention from its weeks of riots by turning the spotlight onto Britain's rebate.

"Why should Britain be exempted from paying its share of enlargement?" French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy asked at this week's angry Brussels meeting, where other EU ministers claimed Britain had wasted their time by calling a meeting when it had no proposals to make.

"Nearly all the countries asked, not quite on their knees but almost, that the British presidency come up with a compromise and accept this agreement," Douste-Blazy said.

The response by British Foreign Minister Jack Straw was curious but highly significant. There was no point in Britain offering a deal that the Blair government could not get through a hostile House of Commons and House of Lords. In effect, Blair's lieutenant pleaded for the EU politicians to comprehend the depth of Blair's political weakness in Britain.


And as and when that new inquiry into the Iraq war get under way, Straw will come up smelling like roses, because he was the senior Cabinet minister who at the last minute tried and failed to get Blair to hold off on the war, and was overruled. That is why the Iraq imbroglio is now known among Labor MPs as "Blair's War," and why the prospect of a new inquiry holds out such perils for the serially embattled Tony Blair.

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