Fri, Jul 02, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Tony Blair faces twin tests of Iraq probe, elections

POLITICALLY SENSITIVE Lord Butler's inquiry could reignite the debate over the reasons the British prime minister gave for joining the US-led conflict


A potentially damaging inquiry into the intelligence that took the UK to war against Iraq said on Wednesday that it will publish its findings on July 14, the eve of two electoral tests for Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Blair has been anxious to draw a line under the Iraq war, which has sent his popularity and public trust ratings tumbling, but the inquiry could reignite the debate over the reasons he gave for joining the US-led conflict.

Blair asked former civil servant Lord Butler to conduct a public inquiry after an earlier probe by judge Lord Hutton gave the government such a clean bill of health that it was dubbed a whitewash and failed to quell the furore over the war.

The prime minister took the UK to war -- against the majority of public opinion -- on the basis of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, but no such weaponry has been found.

Butler's inquiry has the potential to be more scathing than Hutton, although opposition parties have boycotted it, arguing its terms of reference tie Butler's hands.

The inquiry has quizzed the media on whether the government drip-fed or "spun" information on Iraq's weapons before the war.

Iraq has repeatedly thwarted Blair's attempts to shift the political debate back onto the domestic agenda ahead of the next general election, expected in May or June next year.

Opinion polls put Blair's Labour Party on course to win a historic third term, but public opposition to the Iraq war helped fuel a backlash against Labour in local council and European elections last month that slashed its share of the vote.

Blair may have hoped to move the focus off Iraq following Monday's early transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government, but Butler's report will put Iraq back in the headlines a day before two key by-elections on July 15.

Birmingham Hodge Hill and Leicester South should be safe Labour seats but they have significant Muslim populations, making them candidates for an anti-war backlash.

Losses for Labour could revive speculation about Blair's leadership of the party.

Labour's membership is also plummeting, dropping 30,000 to to 215,000 by the end of last year, well below the more than 400,000 it enjoyed when it took power in 1997, the party said.

July holds other challenges for the prime minister.

His government sets out public spending priorities in its three-year spending review on July 12. Blair is also expected to reshuffle his ministerial pack soon to give it a fresh look before the next election.

But political analysts say Blair's fate remains tied up with Iraq, which inevitably will stay high on the agenda. Government sources say Blair will set out his strategy for Iraq in coming weeks, including long-term plans to gradually withdraw troops.

That, they added, does not mean the government will rule out the politically sensitive move of deploying more troops in the near future.

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