Friends Like These…

Paul Bremer slips up and exposes Tony Blair’s penchant for ‘sexing up’ intelligence.

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Old friends or new friends … it’s hard to know who will hurt Tony Blair more.

The British Prime Minister is again struggling to explain allegations that he has ‘sexed up’ information about Iraqi WMD. That much is familiar, as is the criticism being launched Blair’s way by a cadre of former allies. What’s different is how Blair landed in hot water again.

Earlier this month, Blair told British troops that investigators had uncovered “massive evidence of a huge system of clandestine laboratories” in Iraq. Then, last week, Paul Bremer, the Bush administration’s point man in Baghdad, dismissed the claim as nothing more than a “red herring.”

“‘I don’t know where those words come from but that is not what [ISG chief] David Kay has said,’ he told ITV1’s Jonathan Dimbleby programme. ‘I have read his reports so I don’t know who said that. It sounds like a bit of a red herring to me.’

‘It sounds like someone who doesn’t agree with the policy sets up a red herring then knocks it down.'”

So much for transatlantic communication. The only one likely to get knocked down — or at least around — at this point is Blair. And a handful of familiar voices are leading the knock-down campaign.

Robin Cook, Blair’s former foreign minister, declared that it is “undignified for the Prime Minister, and worrying for his nation, to go on believing a threat which everybody else can see was a fantasy.” What’s more, Cook argued that his onetime boss needs to admit he made a mistake or lose what little credibility he still has.

“Once lost, trust is difficult to regain and its absence has infected the credibility of the Government,” the former minister said, commenting on an internet poll showing Blair to be the least trusted political leader in Britain.”

Cook’s criticisms were echoed by Clare Short, who also resigned her post as Britain’s international development secretary over Blair’s decision to support Washington’s war. As she has before, Short argued that Blair’s decision — made at Bush’s behest — was followed by “deceit and all the disgruntlement in the UK and the failure to prepare for afterwards which is a complete disaster for the Middle East, for Iraq, for the world.”

Of course, Cook and Short have become regular Blair critics, and their attacks — while news-worthy — won’t immediately damage Blair’s political standing. The grumbling being heard from his Labor Party rank-and-file, on the other hand, is potentially disastrous. Blair’s hold on his party was tenuous before his decision to join Bush’s march to war (in fact, a recent study by British academics found that Blair’s government is “the most rebelled-against of all post-1945 administrations.”

The rebellious attitude among the party’s backbenchers has been fueled by scores of small disagreements on issues ranging from school reform to fox hunting. But liberal leaders warn that Britain’s role in Washington’s war and Blair’s attempts to justify it are the primary causes of the disenchantment. As one such liberal Labor lawmaker, Diane Abbot, told The Scotsman:

“’The war underlines all the problems that Tony is having with the parliamentary Labour Party at the current time,” she said.

‘I never believed this thing about missiles being ready for fire in 45 minutes but sadly some of my colleagues did and they are the ones that are most bitter and disgruntled.

‘They went and had private chats with Tony, went back to their local parties and said ‘the Prime Minister has told me…’ and they feel like pillocks.

‘They are the people now that are willing to vote on a whole swathe of issues because they were made to feel like pillocks over the war.'”

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