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Thursday, 6 February, 2003, 19:10 GMT
No meeting of minds
Tony Blair in a previous interview with Jeremy Paxman
Blair was expecting a tough time from Paxman

Tony Blair had been bracing himself for this interrogation for days.

Indeed, every time Tony Benn's recent interview with Saddam Hussein was mentioned, he would jokingly - and just a little nervously - say he expected a tougher time from Jeremy Paxman and the Newsnight audience than the Iraqi leader was given.

And he wasn't disappointed. Mr Paxman started as he meant to go on with a direct challenge to the prime minister.

Saddam Hussein
Saddam has eight days
The prime minister was wrong when he suggested the last lot of inspectors were thrown out of Iraq five years ago, wasn't he? They had left.

"I'm not allowing you away with that," said the prime minister. "They were effectively thrown out."

It was a tricky moment for Mr Blair - and there were more to come as the audience of war doubters followed through with a series of pointed questions about the looming conflict.

As usual with ordinary voters, the questions were direct and troublesome - but this is a prime minister well schooled in dealing with these occasions.

He was clearly irritated when described by one questioner as "the member for Texas north" and "Mr vice President."

And he did not like being quizzed about his faith and whether he prayed with George Bush.

Anti-war protester
Protesters unmoved
The last was asked by Mr Paxman, who said he had asked because he genuinely wanted to know. "Possibly," snapped the prime minister.

This territory is absolutely out of bounds as far as he is concerned. That just makes it more intriguing.

Gun belt

But he got through it all relatively unscathed - but did he change any minds?

It is certainly true that for many, with war looking a near certainty, positions appear to have solidified.

Colin Powell's presentation to the UN may have gone some way to win over a few doubting UN states, but the public appear unmoved.

It will take something far more concrete than so far revealed to shift public opinion decisively behind immediate war.

Equally, it will take something pretty dramatic from Saddam to divert Bush and Blair away from war.

He will have to either hand over his gun belt - assuming he really has one - to the UN sheriff or, probably better, get out of town. Neither look likely.

Few doubt that both the president and the prime minister are convinced of Saddam's guilt.

Path to war

But constant suggestions that they are in possession of damning intelligence which they cannot share with the general public - a tactic again deployed by the prime minister - just doesn't seem to be working on the majority of their opponents.

And there are still widespread concerns over exactly what the two leaders' motives really are.

Most MPs in Westminster believe we are now set on an irrevocable path to war and events like Mr Powell's presentation and Mr Blair's interview, while probably swaying a few doubters, primarily succeed only in further convincing the already convinced.

It is now expected that the two leaders will have done enough by the middle of the month to allow them to get their second UN resolution - probably quite quickly after 14 February.

But they are also reconciled to the fact they may well have to do so in the face of public opposition.

As the Prime Minister discovered from one of his interrogators, some people may back them after a successful second resolution.

For others, opposition will only be reversed once war has actually started and British troops are laying their lives on the line.


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See also:

06 Feb 03 | Politics
05 Feb 03 | Politics
05 Feb 03 | Middle East
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