Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Job Done: A Tory Endgame for Iraq

In the Guardian last week there was an opinion poll showing the Liberal Democrats within two points of the Conservatives. This week a poll shows them within three points. Of course we must enter the usual caveats that Tory opinion poll scores are often understated and the memory of Brent East is still fresh while Parliamentary coverage has yet to start. It still needs to be noted as Lib Dem support seems to at least partially ebb and flow with anti-war sentiment. As anti-war sentiment looks likely to remain with this lengthy and costly occupation, the Tories should pay attention.

What is also interesting is the sheer anti-war sentiment among Conservative inclined voters. Not the headline figure, it doesn't take a genius to work out that support for the war while it was on was simply based on the noble and natural desire to support "our boys" when they were under fire. Even in this small corner of reactionary cynicism such support could be found. What is fascinating is that the fastest switchers against the war are Tory voters. Conservative supporters have gone from supporting the war by a margin of 20% to opposing it by 12% That's some switch - and the more remarkable for the fact that the Tories still support the war.

Now allow us to gloat. We warned the Tories that the best political calculation would have been moderate opposition to the war. Not that I'm expecting Conservative Central Office to pay attention (I'm gratified that this is read there at all) but the forecast proved true.

How can the Tory leadership, or any alternate leadership, represent its voters? Continued support for the war is not only unpopular, but even worse it is indistinct from the government. While the Lib Dems have something to say on defence, the Tories don't. It's like Labour not having a policy on the NHS.

The Tories for all sorts of reasons of electoral necesity must find a way of credibly oposing the continued occupation (as well as the occupation being against the national interest, and the national interest is the sort of thing that the Tories are for). This does not mean that the Tories can simply execute a U-Turn. Unfortunately some people will remember where they stood. While U-Turns can often be gracefully performed by oppositions on matters like university funding, the war in Iraq has gone on a bit too long and taken up a bit too much attention for a party to execute a 180 degree turn without a plausible explanation (unlike, say, the Balkans). A credible reason must be found for adopting the right and popular policy.

There are two plausible ways of performing the U-Turn. The first is to say we wuz duped. The intelligence dossier was so far off the mark, and Tony Blair was so dishonest that the whole war was based on a lie. Freddie Forsythe put this case rather forcefully. It does have the advantage that it makes Blair look manipulative, but the public already have the man down as a liar. On the other hand the Tories look like they were misled, not really a good idea for a government in waiting, besides everyone knew that the case for war was not based on the dossiers so who do they think that they are trying to kid?

So how do you oppose the occupation, while admitting that you supported the war but were not stupid to do this? The answer is obvious, all occupations must come to an end, and Iraq's must do to. The conservatives should push for a rapid withdrawal of British forces from Iraq. Yes, getting rid of Saddam was worthwhile - but that was then.

If the Americans believe that Iraq needs to be occupied then that is up to them. They can occupy the southern bit of Iraq. If not then a willing Shia cleric is bound to be found who can rule the republic of Basra.

Saddam's Gone, Job Done. Time to go home.


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