Testing time on foreign affairs

After a week which began with North Korea testing a nuclear weapon and ended with the new head of the British Army calling for our troops to quit Iraq, it is inevitable that the focus of political attention this week has been on foreign affairs.

After a week which began with North Korea testing a nuclear weapon and ended with the new head of the British Army calling for our troops to quit Iraq, it is inevitable that the focus of political attention this week has been on foreign affairs.

There was little new happening at home. A report showed the North-South health divide remains as intractable as ever, but that came as no surprise to those of us who have charted the Government's failure to address the regional inequalities issue over nine long years.

Elsewhere, David Blunkett's newly-published diaries provided entertainment but little insight. In particular, his claim that Tony Blair was ready to sack Gordon Brown in 2003 unless he gave his unequivocal backing to the war in Iraq was manifestly ludicrous.

From Gordon's point of view, it's a pity he wasn't sacked. Had he been, he would undoubtedly have become Prime Minister that summer after the unraveling of the Government's case for war coupled with the David Kelly affair wrecked public trust in Mr Blair.

Even more questionable was former spin doctor Alastair Campbell's decision to rake over the embers of that sorry episode by speaking of his own mental anguish at the suicide of the MoD weapons expert.

His comments in a Sunday newspaper, presenting Dr Kelly's death as no more than a random outcome of process, belied the facts as revealed by Mr Campbell's own diaries at the time.

Far from having sympathy for Dr Kelly's plight, Mr Campbell wanted his name out in the public domain because he hoped it would undermine the truth of the controversial BBC story which claimed the "dodgy dossier" on Iraqi weapons had been "sexed up".

It is deeply ironic that someone who displays so much self-knowledge about the reasons behind his own "psychotic" breakdown at the age of 28 should display so little insight into his own role in a tragedy in which another man was driven to take his own life.

All of which takes us neatly back to Iraq, and General Sir Richard Dannatt's bombshell interview yesterday morning in which he called on Mr Blair to bring the troops home or risk devastating consequences.

"We should get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems," said the General.

"We are in a Muslim country and Muslims' views of foreigners in their country are quite clear. As a foreigner, you can be welcome by being invited into a country, but we weren't invited, certainly by those in Iraq at the time.

"I don't say that the difficulties we are experiencing around the world are caused by our presence in Iraq, but undoubtedly our presence in Iraq exacerbates them," he added.

To say that these comments sent shockwaves through the Government would be an understatement. They run right across Mr Blair's flagship foreign policy and highlight once again the issue that has caused him so much damage with his party.

In particular, the statement that the continuing military presence in Iraq is jeopardising British security is in direct contradiction to what ministers have been arguing ever since the start of the conflict.

What this really demonstrates is Mr Blair's loss of authority. In normal circumstances, any Chief of the General Staff who made comments so undermining of Government policy would be sacked on the spot.

But just as Mr Blair could not conceivably have sacked Mr Brown in 2003 without triggering a terminal political crisis, so now he cannot risk making General Dannatt a martyr to the anti-war cause.

Thus far, Downing Street has limited its response to Sir Richard's comments to the specific accusation that we are uninvited guests in Iraq.

"It's important that people remember that we are in Iraq at the express wish of the democratically elected Iraqi government, to support them under the mandate of a UN resolution," said a spokesman. But Mr Blair's spinners will have much more difficulty explaining away Sir Richard's view that our presence in Iraq exacerbates our security problems. The real problem for Mr Blair is that the General is not just expressing a personal view, but one that is now widely held not just by the public, but within the Armed Forces in general.

So much for Iraq - what of North Korea, which shocked world opinion and underlined its status as an international pariah by detonating a nuclear bomb underground last Monday morning?

Well, I don't for a moment defend the country's actions, but for the international community to have a credible response, it has to be seen to be applying the same rules for everyone.

Multilateral nuclear disarmament should therefore mean just that. If other countries are to be required to give up their nuclear ambitions, then so should we. To put it another way, if we persist in regarding the possession of an independent nuclear deterrent as some kind of national virility symbol, then it is scarcely surprising that countries such as North Korea should do likewise.

Taken together, though, what the week's events bear out is that Mr Blair was telling it like it is when he spoke in his conference speech about the challenges that will face the next Prime Minister. "In 1997 the challenges we faced were essentially British. Today they are essentially global," he said in Manchester.

Were he to get the job, Gordon Brown might view his priorities as abolishing child poverty, restoring public trust in the political system, even, dare I say it, bridging the North-South health divide. But like the current incumbent, he may find that it is what happens beyond these shores that will ultimately make or break his premiership.

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