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Is truth a casualty of election?

By CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley

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Robin Oakley
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- When will they ever learn? By delaying publication of Attorney General Lord Goldsmith's legal advice over the war in Iraq until it was dragged out of him by near total disclosure in the media, Tony Blair managed to turn a calamity into a disaster.

This is supposed to be a government which long ago mastered the arts of political spin, if indeed it did not invent some of them. But the simplest lesson in political news management is that if you are in trouble and the news has started to come out, then publish the lot and be damned. It may give you a painful day or two. But it is a great deal better than death by a hundred leaks. Fending off the media pack over days in such circumstances is about as easy as eating spaghetti with just a knife.

By delaying as long as he did, Blair looked like a man with more to hide than the full document finally revealed. More than that, he ceded a tactical advantage to his Conservative and Liberal Democrat rivals. They have wanted this election to be a referendum on the prime minister and whether he can be trusted. He has wanted it to be an election about Labour's achievements in managing the economy (on which the record is good) and in improving public services (on which the record is improving).

By fighting off the demands for publication of the Goldsmith advice for as long as he did Blair ensured that the trust and integrity question remained at the top of the political agenda for days. It is probably the biggest hit that he and his party have taken yet, and it is largely his own fault.

What was clear in the run-up to the Iraq war was that everybody was covering themselves. Blair needed legal cover for war, which is why he sought the Attorney-General's advice. Sir Michael Joyce, the then Chief of the Defence Staff, wanted cover too. To ensure that he was not sending his troops into a war which might be ruled illegal he also demanded a specific assurance. But then Lord Goldsmith too wanted cover.

The attorney general's first, now published, document set out the legal pros and cons, including the areas in which the government might be legally vulnerable. It was not, in itself, a ruling on whether the war was legal or not. Before he issued that, in the bare bones document given to the Cabinet meeting which authorized the war, Lord Goldsmith too wanted insurance. He asked the prime minister for, and received, an assurance that Saddam Hussein was in further breach of UN resolutions.

As we all now know, the intelligence on which Tony Blair based that assurance to Lord Goldsmith was faulty. So the whole legal backing for the war was in fact based on a misapprehension. But nobody is suggesting that Blair did not have or believe that intelligence.

The real problem is that he probably wanted too much to believe it, as he did with the intelligence published in the now infamous dossier given to people and Parliament.

Blair is a politician who has a great capacity for self-persuasion before he sets out to convince others. And if it becomes politically necessary he is probably quite capable of convincing himself of the continued existence of the tooth fairy and the Marie Celeste, having just run the possibilities past the Joint Intelligence Committee to ensure they cannot rule out either possibility.

If that is the most significant blow so far, at this stage of the campaign all the parties have taken some significant hits. Labour has been bruised too by the finding of the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies that Chancellor Gordon Brown, if there is another Labour victory, will need to increase taxes by £11 billion ($21 billion) to get the books straight. And he and Blair have been unable to rule out an other "stealth tax" increase in workers' National Insurance payments even though they are promising again not to raise the standard or higher rates of income tax.

After such hits, the Tories, one might think, should be doing much better. But then their economic spokesman Oliver Letwin could not guarantee no increase in National Insurance either. The immediate tax cuts promised by the Conservatives turn out not to be deliverable for at least a year. And after all their fuss about immigration and the pledges that they will take "proper control of our borders" it turned out that they only plan their promised 24-hour surveillance at 35 of Britain's 650 ports.

The Liberal Democrats too have been in trouble over the number of middle income earners who could be hit by their planned switch from a property-based local government council tax to a local income tax.

With holes springing in every ship, so far above the waterline, it was perhaps no surprise that the same poll this week which found that 44 per cent of electors did not believe that they could trust Blair also found 44 per cent saying that they preferred him as prime minister. Only 22 pert cent preferred Conservative leader Michael Howard.

It seems we don't even expect our politicians to tell the truth any more, and we use other criteria to decide whether we will vote for them.


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