by RAY FLEMING

Was their journey really necessary? The charade of Sunday's meeting in the Azores already seems an age ago after the tumult of yesterday's fast-moving events. Nonetheless, it is worth reflecting briefly on why a president and two prime ministers had to travel so far to hold a press conference about an agreement which had obviously been drawn up before they left their home bases. Was it to gather strength from each other's presence? They certainly appear to be isolated. Britain and the United States are about to go to war, they say, on behalf of a world community which opposes it. Tony Blair's position, in particular, is pitiable. In a mistaken commitment to the so-called “special relationship” - something that exists much more strongly in the British minds than American - he has allowed the warm reaction to his instinctive support for the United States in the aftermath of the terrorism of September 2001 to persuade him to embrace Washington's Iraq agenda. Now he finds himself without substantial support in his own country and perhaps increasingly dependent on Conservative votes in the House of Commons. Despite insistence on his “passionate” conviction of the correctness of his course, he has failed to win over public opinion which is perfectly well able to understand that he is being led by Washington into an adventure that is neither necessary nor legitimate. The decision that there should be a Commons debate on the Iraq crisis today is to the government's credit - and perhaps particularly to Robin Cook's credit, as the former Leader of the House, although he will no longer be able take it. There is a distinct possibility that there will be more Labour MPs opposing the government than the 122 who rebelled on the last occasion. It will be an uncomfortable occasion for the government front bench although a decision to have refused the debate would probably have caused even more trouble. It is probably expecting too much to hope that in their speeches today the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary will refrain from blaming the French government for the breakdown of negotiations for a “second” resolution and therefore for President Bush's subsequent decision to abandon the diplomatic effort in the Security Council. Some disgraceful things have been said by Mr Straw and, yesterday, by Mr Prescott about French “intransigence”. If the events of the past few weeks have taught us anything it is that the belief of the Anglo–Saxons in the rightness of their world–view is undiminished. There is an worrying kind of religious certainty about the convictions of London and Washington.

Mr Blair's determination to get a second resolution, despite America's coolness towards it, was entirely related to his domestic difficulties, not to the principle of the matter. The votes for it were never there in the Council. The French, the Germans and the Russians saw this clearly enough and accordingly determined that the course of implementing resolution 1441, if possible through the work of the weapons inspectors, should not be diverted to suit Britain's political convenience and America's haste to get the war over before the desert temperatures become unbearable.

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