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Saturday, 15 February, 2003, 12:51 GMT
Blair finds a cause
Prime Minister Tony Blair
How much does public opinion matter on Iraq?

Is it possible that the prime minister more driven than any before him by focus groups and opinion polls is about to go to war in defiance of mass opposition?

Right up until this weekend, the answer was a pretty resounding 'yes'.

Yet there have now been the first signs that Tony Blair may have to slow his moves to military action against Saddam Hussein.

But if the anti-war protesters believe that delay is down to them, they will be kidding themselves.

I do not seek unpopularity as a badge of honour but sometimes it is the price of leadership and cost of conviction

Tony Blair
In his passionate speech to his party's spring conference, Mr Blair made it as plain as he possibly could that he was not about to abandon his goal of removing Saddam Hussein by force, if necessary.

Repeating his newly deployed moral case for action, he told the protesters it would be morally wrong to leave Saddam in power to continue impoverishing, torturing and murdering his own people.

There was not even a hint that he had abandoned his goal.

Indeed, he sought to win over the protesters with his moral argument.

He did accept that a delay was now virtually inevitable, and the worldwide opposition to war has certainly fed into the political manoeuvring over this looming conflict.

But the single factor that has swayed the prime minister on this most momentous of all decisions is the growing split within the UN.

Opponents strengthened

So far, Mr Blair has been confident he would be able to win his second UN resolution sanctioning war and that public opinion would then swing behind him.

That prospect has now retreated pretty significantly after Hans Blix's report to the UN which strengthened the opponents, led by France and Germany.

In his speech to Labour's spring conference in Glasgow, Mr Blair accepted the inspectors would be given more time, but he also told the protesters in the most powerful terms possible that his long term objective was unchanged and, more significantly, was unchangeable.

For probably the first time in his premiership, the prime minister has shown he is ready to defy opposition from the public, his own party and much of the international community.

It is a hugely risky stand to take, and not simply because it is about war.

Unquestioning trust

These demonstrations also hint at the far wider problem for the prime minister - that he is now widely perceived to be out of touch with voters' feelings.

He has previously called on the public to, in effect, trust his judgement.

He no longer enjoys that unquestioning trust.

But the prime minister has a history of taking account of mass demonstrations of public opinion.

The protests by pensioners over their 75p increase a couple of years ago landed Mr Blair with one of his greatest challenges from ordinary voters - and the policy was swiftly abandoned.

Fuel tax protesters similarly won concessions at the same time. And the threat of a major public backlash against student fees was also credited with a switch of policy - albeit to one that has since sparked its own backlash.

Countryside Alliance march in London
Countryside protesters put pressure on Tony Blair
But probably the nearest equivalent was the Countryside Alliance's demonstrations against the prime minister's proposals to ban fox hunting which had been a general election pledge.

Mr Blair was clearly spooked by the size and ferocity of the protests and his immediate response was to bend.

The protesters still fear they have not won the final battle but it is a pretty fair bet that, had they not launched their opposition but left it to MPs to decide, fox hunting would have been banned a long time ago.

But this is different.

Mr Blair may insist in his best man-of-the-people style that he is listening, but the chances of the marchers getting their way are nil.

The prime minister has known for many weeks just how widespread and passionate the opposition to war is.

But he has so far shown no intention of changing tack and he told the protesters that he does not seek unpopularity as a "badge of honour".

But, for them, it is worse than that.

The objective of ridding the world of Saddam Hussein is now the single biggest force driving this once supremely pragmatic prime minister.

Tony Blair has found a cause.

And he is displaying the sort of single mindedness in pursuing it that few have previously witnessed.

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15 Feb 03 | Politics
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