The leak of a document which allegedly reveals that Tony Blair persuaded George Bush not to bomb al-Jazeeraâ€™s offices in Qatar last year raises some interesting questions, in respect both of the contents of the memo and of the governmentâ€™s reaction to the leak. On the surface, this looks like a bad story for the government, but we should look closer before coming to that conclusion.
The political background is familiar, but it is worth summarising here to set the issue in context. Having lost a major vote in Parliament two weeks ago, and having been practically chaperoned through the recent election campaign by the rather more popular Gordon Brown, Blair is now very much the lame duck Prime Minister. This has a good deal to do with Iraq, not least the perception that Blair has surrendered British foreign policy to George Bush, who is unloved here, to put it mildly.
To rebut the popular image of him as Bushâ€™s â€œpoodleâ€, Blair has constantly claimed to wield a degree of influence over US actions, as part of the â€œspecial relationshipâ€. These claims were crushed by the recent revelations of ex UK Ambassador to the US, Sir Christopher Meyer. In his autobiography Meyer says that UK officials could have used their influence in Washington during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, but never did, describing Blair, Straw et al as nervous, intimidated and tongue-tied, genuflecting before the Bush administration at every turn. This picture of our governmentâ€™s relationship with the White House was never going to play out well in the UK, and indeed Meyerâ€™s comments elicited some very sharp reactions from Deputy PM John Prescott and Blairite outrider Denis MacShane. More generally, Meyerâ€™s comments poison the image Blairâ€™s handlers are trying to cultivate of him as a tough, tenacious and battle-hardened statesman. For New Labour, the image of The Great Leader is of paramount concern. Blair couldnâ€™t afford these revelations at the best of times; and these are not the best of times.
Into this political scene comes the al-Jazeera revelation, which portrays the Prime Minister in a way that directly contradicts Meyerâ€™s description. Given the political context, it is worth paying close attention to what the editor of the Daily Mirror, which broke the story, has said about Downing Streetâ€™s first reaction to the leak:
“We made No 10 fully aware of the intention to publish and were given ‘no comment’ officially or unofficially. Suddenly 24 hours later we are threatened under section 5 [of the Official Secrets Act]“.
Why would No 10 give the Mirror â€œno commentâ€ when notified of the intent to publish, only to react with such indignation once the story went public? Its extremely hard to avoid the suspicion that the answer lies in how the revelations portray the Prime Minister against the background of his recent political fortunes. Once the image of Blair getting on the phone to Crawford, Texas and telling it like it is (â€œnow just you listen here, Georgeâ€) has safely entered the public mind, the government can react with the suitable (even the plausible) level of indignation. Indeed, there are benefits here too. As the Mirrorâ€™s editor mentions, the attorney general is now threatening the media with the draconian Official Secrets Act , in an effort to “draw a line in the sand” on further leaks. Recently, there has been a virtual haemorrhage of leaks casting Blair in a very poor light; the â€œDowning Street Memoâ€ for example, which set out in stark terms the governmentâ€™s plans to inflate the otherwise â€œthinâ€ case for invading Iraq. We should recall that all of these leaks were met with near silence from Whitehall, perhaps due to concerns of lending momentum to the story. For the same reason, dramatically drawing â€œa line in the sandâ€ now, in the case of a rather more flattering leak, does the government rather less harm.
The Guardianâ€™s leader writers are very much on message:
â€œ..there may be a positive aspect to a story which seems to offer nothing but embarrassment to the government. Mr Blair habitually defends his relationship with Mr Bush on the grounds that loyalty to an ally brings influence. The memoirs of Sir Christopher Meyer have badly damaged that line, as has Washington’s persistent indulgence of Israel. If it were true that the prime minister had managed to stop the bombing of al-Jazeera’s Qatar HQ, it would be a rare, perhaps unique, example of him winning an argument with the president.â€
Would New Labour be willing to act so cynically as to somehow engineer the leak of a memo, simply in the interests of the Prime Ministerâ€™s public image? Could they conceive of such a thing? I wonâ€™t insult your intelligence by answering that. Instead, let us move on to examine the image of Blair described above by the Guardian leader writers, since that is undoubtedly the benefit he will hope to take from this episode, however it has come to pass. Like most attempts to portray Blair as a moral man, just trying to â€œdo the right thingâ€, hypocrisy is revealed at the first examination. When NATO bombed the HQ of Radio-Television Serbia in Belgrade back in 1999, Blair was unapologetic , saying that â€œwe are entirely justified â€¦ in damaging and attacking all these targetsâ€. If Blair did talk Bush out of bombing al-Jazeera we can be sure that it was not on moral grounds. His past behaviour makes clear that he has no qualms about treating the media as enemy targets in war time, to be treated with deadly force. Any objection to the bombing of al-Jazeera will have been drawn strictly from concerns of political expediency, which probably also account for this most recent leak and the official reaction to it.