Soldier's blast leaves Blair wounded

Did Britain's Army chief blunder? Or did he do it deliberately? Either way, says political editor Chris Fisher, he has highlighted the weakness of the prime minister as he approaches the end.

Did Britain's Army chief blunder? Or did he do it deliberately? Either way, says political editor Chris Fisher, he has highlighted the weakness of the prime minister as he approaches the end.

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As he looked at the gaping holes in 10, Downing Street, the Ministry of Defence and British foreign policy caused by shells from his verbal tank, the head of the British Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, sounded bemused.

Had he done that? If so, how had it happened? He hadn't wanted to suggest there was a “chasm” between him and the prime minister over Iraq and other policy issues, he told Radio 4's Today programme. Indeed, he was determined that no-one would be able to put even a piece of paper, however thin, between him and his political bosses.

But for a piece of cigarette paper, this one does a very good impression of the Grand Canyon.

Many questions needed to be asked yesterday as Sir Richard and Tony Blair - who started the day in St Andrews in Scotland - studied the smoking ruins.

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For a start, why had Sir Richard - new to his post and with a reputation as a straight talker - been allowed to talk to the Daily Mail? No newspaper exceeds it in its determination to seize every opportunity to inflict maximum damage on a Labour administration.

Would the interview have happened if Alastair Campbell had still been running the government's media operation? No way. He would have seen the danger immediately and eliminated it. But he has gone - largely as a casualty of the Iraq war - and in the dying days of Mrs Blair's premiership, things just don't work that way any more. Iron control has given way to indecision and weakness.

If Sir Richard had innocently fallen foul of Daily Mail cunning, he certainly wouldn't be the first such victim. Westminster has the tombs of many political figures who apparently thought they hadn't said anything out of the ordinary to the Mail, but then had their words reproduced in large headlines and repeated on their gravestones.

But it seems to me that the Mail did not have to do much spinning with Sir Richard's comments to cause huge embarrassment. He handed it to the paper on a silver plate. And there will be much speculation as to whether he acted naively, or whether he knew exactly what he was doing.

If it were the latter, he was acting highly improperly and dangerously. The Iraq war has been a hugely divisive issue. His comments on that are therefore liable to please some people and upset a (considerably smaller) number of others. But whatever our position on the rights and wrongs of the war and the aftermath, we should all be able to accept that it not for the Chief of the General Staff to try to make or change this country's foreign policy with public pronouncements.

It is for him to advise ministers privately, for them to make the policy decisions, and for him to carry them out. There is a fundamental constitutional boundary in this, and to cross it deliberately is to get into very murky and boggy territory that leads eventually to military dictatorships.

Quite a few of Sir Richard's comments to the Mail were absolutely guaranteed to cause a storm when they got into the public domain. He said that British troops should be withdrawn from Iraq “soon”; that the presence of the troops in Iraq “exacerbates” (but does not cause) our security problems around the world; that we “kicked the door in” with the military campaign in 2003; and that the planning for the post-war Iraq was poor. He also suggested that the objective of establishing a model liberal democracy in Iraq was naïve, and declared that “I think we should aim for a lower ambition”.

In the cool light of the following morning, his message was substantially different. It was that our troops should stay “until the job is done, and I hope that is soon”, that “we shall see this through”, and that “we don't do surrender and white flags”. But he did add that it was essential not to “break” the Army in Iraq. It was impossible in any case to talk away what had already appeared in print, and he did not deny any of the comments attributed to him.

One was left convinced that he had told the Mail what he really felt. But to what extent had it been a blunder, and to what degree had it been calculation?

Sir Richard is not generally sceptical about the war on terror. He takes the view that the war in Afghanistan has to be won (and a factor in his comments seems to have been a desire to get British troops shifted to that theatre of conflict from the one in Iraq). This deeply Christian man also made it clear in his Mail interview that he is very concerned about the “Islamist challenge to our society” at home. That could also get him into hot water.

Some of his comments stood up in my opinion. Some were even statements of the obvious. But others were very shaky if not simply mistaken. The distinction between our position in Iraq and that in Afghanistan is by no means as clear cut as he indicated. In both cases we went in uninvited. In both cases we remain at the request of a democratically elected government.

The prime minister quickly let it be known yesterday that Sir Richard retains his full confidence. So will he (Sir Richard) survive? I think he would have quickly become toast when Mr Blair was in his prime. And he might have been speedily packing his bags if a new man, with a reputation as a control freak, had taken over at No 10.