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Last Updated: Sunday, 1 June, 2003, 10:04 GMT 11:04 UK
All at stake in weapons row

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

The charges currently being levelled against Tony Blair over the war on Iraq could not be more serious.

And they boil down to a single question - did the government deliberately spin Britain into the conflict?

Was all the pre-war talk about the imminent threat from Saddam's weapons of mass destruction an exercise in "sexing up" the evidence in an attempt to win what was otherwise a shaky case for war?

If there is any proof that was the case then the prime minister, along with several of his ministers, has committed the greatest of all parliamentary sins - that of misleading the House of Commons.

There are huge dangers for both sides here.
Parliament's legitimacy derives for the fact that "honourable members" are precisely that - honourable and truthful. Without that trust, the entire bedrock of parliamentary democracy crumbles.

For that reason, anyone found to have deliberately misled parliament has only one option - resignation.

And that is precisely what the prime minister is now being accused of by the likes of Clare Short.

Evidence faith

Before the war, even the prime minister's harshest critics probably had to accept that he believed wholeheartedly in what he was doing.

Similarly many - if by no means all - believed that Saddam really did have the sort of weapon's capability Mr Blair and President Bush kept insisting he had.

If it is ever shown that Mr Blair deliberately massaged the facts then his premiership will almost certainly be over.
For many of the critics, their opposition stemmed far more from the doubts over the legitimacy of the war without UN backing.

The prime minister calculated, however, that he would win the vast majority of the sceptics around once war - legitimate or otherwise - was under way.

That proved to be the case, but the entire affair left a legacy of anger and dismay amongst his severest critics, led by Ms Short and Robin Cook, both of who now claim to have been vindicated.

They have been quick to seize on all the latest claims about spin to suggest the prime minister has misled Parliament.

But there are huge dangers for both sides here.

Credibility risks

Clearly, if it is ever shown that Mr Blair deliberately massaged the facts to either win the crunch Commons vote sanctioning the war or hype up the pre-war atmosphere, then his premiership will almost certainly be over.

It is unthinkable that he could remain in office if that was proved to be the case.

But the rebels also face the danger of having their own credibility destroyed if the promised dossier on Saddam's weapons programme backs the prime minister's case.

The risk for them is that they may have spoken too soon. It is certainly the case that the prime minister appears as confident as ever that he will be vindicated.

If he is, then the critics' will have been neutered and they will find it near impossible to win an audience for their wider claims about the legitimacy of the war.

This is seriously high stakes for all involved and the affair clearly has a long way to run yet.

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