BUT for Iraq, the coming week's Labour Party conference at Brighton would be a confident and largely untroubled preparation for a general election likely to be held in early May next year. Mr Blair and his ministers would face the assembled delegates as a winning team ready for a third term and still full of fresh ideas. The conference would resemble somewhat the 1986 Conservative gathering when Margaret Thatcher had a third term in her sights and a platform of initatives under the slogan “The next move forward”.

Labour has never before been so close to a third term and the polls continue to suggest that it will win next year, if only because of the weakness of the opposition. Yet there must still be considerable anxiety over Iraq and its potential to ruin what otherwise would be a foregone conclusion. This anxiety is focussed on the Prime Minister himself because, despite all the formal show of unity in the Cabinet, the public sees him as the architect and builder of the invasion of Iraq. Although the agenda for Brighton will not be confirmed until later today, it seems possible that the trade unions will succeeed in getting a debate on a critical resolution on Iraq despite the frantic efforts that the party managers have been making to avoid this.

IS there any possibility that Mr Blair will find a way of lancing the painful boil that Iraq has become? If he is ever to offer an apology, however qualified, this coming week is the time to do it when he is among friends who could be counted on not to exploit the moment. If the week passes without such an apology Iraq will haunt the party and its leader for a long time to come.