Could Leaks Sink Tony Blair?

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By Jefferson Morley
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 3, 2005; 7:05 AM

The drip drip drip of press leaks about Tony Blair's decision to join the U.S. invasion of Iraq is eroding the British prime minister's lead in public opinion polls heading into Thursday's election, according to British online commentators.

With Blair and the Labor Party holding only a three-point to eight-point lead in a three-way race with Conservative Party leader Michael Howard and Liberal Democrat Charles Kennedy, pundits say revelations about Blair's Iraq policy are threatening to alienate Labor voters.

That would be ironic because Iraq does not seem to be a central issue in the minds of most voters. In an online survey, the Daily Mail, a London tabloid, asks "Is the war a key election issue for you?" Fifty-nine percent say no.

But the debate over pre-war decision making is demanding Blair's attention and, based on the media coverage, may be taking a toll on Labor. The latest revelation, published in The Sunday Times over the weekend, is that Blair privately told President Bush in April 2002 that Britain would support "regime change" by force in Iraq. At the time Blair told the British public that no decisions had been made about going to war.

The story was a sensation because it was based on a "Secret and Strictly Personal" memo about a July 2002 meeting Blair had with British defense and intelligence officials in which top officials expressed doubts about the justification for attacking Iraq.

According to the memo, Foreign Minister Jack Straw told those assembled that the case for war was "thin" because Saddam Hussein "was not threatening his neighbours and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."

In an analysis written for The Times of London, the sister paper of the Sunday Times, Peter Riddell concluded that Blair didn't lie about his decision to take Britain to war "but he was less than frank about either the Government's assessment of US intentions or British preparations."

The Times' scoop followed a leak to the Daily Mail April 24 in which it was revealed that Attorney General Peter Goldsmith, on the eve of the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, gave Blair a 13-page memo listing six reasons why invading Iraq could be a breach of international law.

"The full document shows categorically the Prime Minister's claim that the advice was identical to a brief published 'summary' which declared the war was legal is completely untrue," said the Mail.

Four days later, Blair's office relented to mounting pressure, according to the BBC, and released the full legal opinion prepared ahead of the Iraq war. The first version of Goldsmith's legal advice dated March 7, 2003, that contained reservations about the war's legality was not shared with Blair's cabinet. A second version published March 17, 2003, and distributed more widely, did not include the same reservations.

The media leaks, said the Sunday Times, appear to be an attempt by "disaffected Whitehall insiders to attack Blair's integrity" and "fuel claims he misled the country on Iraq."

If so, the leak attack seems to be having some effect. "Iraq Gnaws at Blair's Credibility," says The Scotsman, a paper whose editors supported Blair's decision to go to war.


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