Speaker by Various Artists

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by David Williams

Isn't it amazing what difference a year can make?

In April 2003 an upbeat, almost smarmy, Tony Blair said of those who doubted Iraq had weapons of mass destruction: "You and others will be eating some of your words." Late last night, however, it was Blair who was tearing up his quotes and shoving them into his mouth. He admitted to the Commons liaison committee of senior MPs that WMD "may never be found", while qualifying his remarks by saying they could have been hidden, removed or destroyed.

Yesterday's admission, came only two days after former UK envoy to Iraq Sir Jeremy Greenstock said there was "no doubt" WMD were not there, but that the reasons for taking action were "compelling"

This is in no way a complete victory for the anti-war lobby. Even they are realistic enough to realise Saddam Hussein - the tyrant, the guy who gassed his own people - probably did have something to hide. So it would be no surprise if some material outlawed by the UN was discovered in a hole somewhere in years to come. The lefties would be well-advised not to crow too loudly, then, about Blair's admission.

What is interesting, however, is the softening of his position - no doubt to avoid political points-scoring by the Tories in the lead-up to a general election likely to be called in the first half of next year.

Last June, Blair told the House of Commons that he had "no doubt" the Iraq Survey Group would find the clearest possible evidence of Saddam's WMD. He repeated his certainty, despite pressure over the quality of intelligence coming out of Iraq, the following month at the Commons liaison committee - yes, the same committee he made his begrudging comments to yesterday.

There have been a few embarrassing moments for Blair before this. Last Christmas he claimed the Iraq Survey Group had found "massive evidence of a huge system of clandestine laboratories, workings by scientists, plans to develop long range ballistic missiles". When those comments were put to Paul Bremer, the US head of Iraq's Provisional Authority, he said: "I don‚t know where those words come from but that is not what (ISG chief) David Kay has said."

In February of this year he was guilted into launching an inquiry to establish why WMD have not been found in Iraq when Bush unexpectantly set up a similar bipartison commission in the US. The British inquiry will issue its report next Wednesday - though those expecting a report which may unseat Blair only need remind themselves of the much anticipated Hutton Report, which turned into a whitewash for the Government.

Blair is trying to limit the damage to his party from their close relationship with America, and to that end he took a seemingly hard line on the US's prison camp at Guantanamo Bay yesterday, telling the committee it was an "anomaly" and it must go. That's all well and good as a political line NOW, but Tell that to the guys who have just spent two years in chains and orange boiler suits...

As to Bush - whose own inquiry will conveniently not report back until next year, months after November's presidential election - in his Independence Day address he mentioned September 11 and al Qaeda (in relation to Afghanistan). In regards to Iraq he said: "Only last year, (Iraq) was under the control of a dictator who threatened the civilized world, who used weapons of mass destruction against his own people. He tormented and tortured the people of Iraq. Because we acted, Iraq today is a free and sovereign nation."

This is a guy who last March fervently stated that intelligence gathered by his government and others "leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised".

Keeping on the Iraq theme, there have been some strange goings on in the last month regarding the link (or not) between Saddam's regime and al Qaeda. The September 11 commission reported last month there was no collaborative relationship between the two, but Bush was firm there were "numerous contacts". It was only then that anti-war Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, revealed he was told by his intelligence services that Saddam's regime were preparing terrorist attacks in the US. And if you thought THAT was weird, what about the fact that a week later a new document was uncovered showing Iraqi intelligence agents had contacted Osama bin Laden when he was in Sudan in the mid-1990s as part of an effort by Baghdad to work with enemies of the Saudi ruling family. Great timing...

It will be interesting to see if the war in Iraq and revelations about the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib hurt Bush's re-election chances (and those of Blair and Australia's John Howard for that matter!).

The release of two revealing books about Bush's administration have not done the president any favours. In Bob Woodward's "Plan of Attack", it mentions that vice-president Dick Cheney was thought to have something of a "fever" about Iraq, while Richard A Clarke's "Against All Enemies" chronicles Bush's own order - on the day after September 11 - for Clarke, Bush's counter-terrorism czar, to find out if "Saddam did this" - despite healthy assurances to the contrary. But you would have to think that those books, plus Michael Moore's new film Fahrenheit 9/11, will be effectively preaching to the converted (just look at this poll). Therefore, the deciding factor for many Americans may be the (much-improved) economy.

Just when the left-wingers' lips may be quivering a little, those who cried "Oil!" when Iraq was invaded may yet have something to crow about. I could have heard this wrong, but on Australia's ABC radio the other day I'm sure an American election statistician said only once in the past 20 years (Bill Clinton in 1996) has a US president been re-elected when oil prices have risen during their term of office. And despite apparent assurances by Saudi Arabia to control oil prices (outlined in Woodward's book) the prices at the pump are still sky high.

Huge queues at petrol stations and high oil prices were said to have contributed to Jimmy Carter's loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980, with petrol queues apparently playing a part in the demise of Gerald Ford in 1974. Will oil prices have the same effect on Bush in 2004? With Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry naming John Edwards as his running mate yesterday (even though the New York Post thought otherwise), thankfully we won't have long to wait to find out.