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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 September, 2004, 10:41 GMT 11:41 UK
Why sorry is the hardest word
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent in Brighton

Tony and Cherie Blair after his conference speech
Tony and Cherie Blair at Labour's rally
So did the prime minister say sorry or didn't he?

In his big conference speech, Tony Blair admitted the intelligence on Saddam's WMDs had been wrong - and he said he could apologise for that.

But he came nowhere near saying sorry for taking Britain to war on Iraq. Indeed he has suggested that, had he known then what he knows now, he would still have done it.

Whether he would have been allowed to do it by Parliament is another matter, of course.

But in extracts from the speech released to evening newspapers before it was delivered, the "s word" was there in its full glory.

He was supposed to say that he knew the war had divided the country, and for that, he was sorry.

Say sorry

So, even in that undelivered phrase, he did not say sorry for going to war, only for dividing the country.

The cynics are already saying this was a deliberate and typical spin doctor's trick.

It ensured the word "sorry" appeared in newspapers that cover huge swathes of the country, without the prime minister ever having to utter it.

All you can do as a prime minister is take a judgement
Tony Blair

It would, however, be "out there" but the prime minister would be untainted by it - bases are covered, all eventualities accounted for.

The truth, of course, is that the prime minister cannot say sorry - even if he wants to and certainly not while he is still in power.

That would be an admission that his judgement to go to war had been wrong. And that would be the end of his premiership.

Because, while the row over the decision continues unabated, he has increasingly fallen back on the issue of his judgement as his last line of defence.

Right thing

The argument the prime minister is making is that, with all the intelligence he had received (even though it later turned out to be wrong) he had to make a judgement whether Saddam could be allowed to continue unchecked.

As he told the BBC on Wednesday morning, he took the only decision he believed he could under those circumstances.

"All you can do as a prime minister is take a judgement," he said. And he again insisted, as he has done many times now, that he "believed", and still believes, he did the right thing.

But that inevitably raises the next question, and the one he has now admitted to his party is his greatest problem - that of trust.

His argument on the Today programme was that you should trust a prime minister most when they are doing unpopular things.

Whether that explanation will convince those who have lost trust over Iraq must be open to question.

He told his conference the issue of trust was primarily over the decisions and judgements he had taken, and he has admitted he took those decisions on information that was plain wrong.

Lost power

That leads to the question of whether he could ever again convince Parliament or the people to go to war based on intelligence assessments - in other words, without the target country having taken some precipitate action, such as launching an attack, first.

It was put to him on the Today programme that if he has lost that power, if the voters and Parliament would never again trust him to take them to war under such circumstances, can he remain as prime minister?

Going to war is, after all, the most grave decision any prime minster may be called on to make.

And the prime minister argues that new global threat requires the launching of pre-emptive action to prevent just such an attack.

Tony Blair's answer was that we do not have such a situation - and if there was one, public backing would depend on the evidence available.

He said that in the wake of Iraq he would be one of the hardest to be convinced by intelligence.

However he may well be hoping that situation never again arises while he is in Downing Street.

The BBC's Shaun Ley
"Voters will only hear Blair's domestic message if he first tackles Iraq head on"

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