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.
Blair himself is concerned says the Daily Telegraph. The prime minister is reportedly worried "that a surge in support for Liberal Democrats over Iraq could cut his [parliamentary] majority to well under 100, possibly even as low as 30 to 50."
Blair went on TV to accuse the Liberal Democrats and conservative Tories "of constantly returning to the theme of Iraq because they had nothing positive to say on the issues affecting Britain's future."
The prime minister also warned disillusioned Labor voters against a protest vote for Liberal Democratic leader Charles Kennedy, who has been relentlessly attacking Blair's credibility.
"There isn't going to be a Liberal Democrat government," Blair said. "But what there could be is Liberal Democrat votes that let the Tories in."
Columnist Gary Younge of The Guardian replied, "There is as much veracity to the claim that voting for the Liberal Democrats will let the Tories through the back door as there was that Saddam Hussein was 45 minutes from killing us all. A study by the Independent revealed that a swing of 11.5% from Labour to the Lib Dems would indeed deprive Labour of its overall majority. But even if the defections were twice that rate, it would still be 'virtually impossible' to let in a Conservative government."
It's far from a statistically valid sample but the Daily Telegraph says the Tories are gaining among a focus group of 10 voters interviewed by the newspaper.
But the Conservative's Michael Howard is an improbable beneficiary of an Iraq protest vote because he would probably not change Blair's Iraq war policy at all. The Telegraph's endorsement of Howard does not even mention Iraq.
Polemics over the Iraq war will not make any difference, predicted The Sun. Britain's best-selling newspaper said "nobody outside the Westminster village [meaning the British political class] is listening" to the attacks on Blair.
Others are listening but not changing their votes. Tony Parsons, a columnist for the Mirror, another popular tabloid, says "we don't even blink" about the Iraq revelations "because we expect to be lied to by Tony Blair and crew."
Nonetheless, says Parsons, he will vote for Blair "with a sigh."