· Downing Street plays down slip in TV interview
· Hodge criticises 'moral imperialism' in speech
Tania Branigan, political correspondent
Saturday November 18, 2006
Tony Blair conceded last night that western intervention in Iraq had been a disaster. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, the Arabic TV station, the prime minister agreed with the veteran broadcaster Sir David Frost when he suggested that intervention had "so far been pretty much of a disaster".
Mr Blair said: "It has, but you see, what I say to people is, 'why is it difficult in Iraq?' It's not difficult because of some accident in planning, it's difficult because there's a deliberate strategy - al-Qaida with Sunni insurgents on one hand, Iranian-backed elements with Shia militias on the other - to create a situation in which the will of the majority for peace is displaced by the will of the minority for war."
Downing Street tried to downplay the apparent slip. "I think that's just the way in which he answers questions," said a spokesman. "His views on Iraq are documented in hundreds of places, and that is not one of them."
Mr Blair's remarks came hours after his trade and industry minister, Margaret Hodge, was reported to have described Iraq as his "big mistake in foreign affairs" and criticised his "moral imperialism".
John McDonnell, the leftwing MP who has pledged to challenge for Labour's leadership, said the prime minister's concession was "staggering" and urged him to bring forward Britain's exit strategy.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said: "At long last the enormity of the decision to take military action against Iraq is being accepted by the prime minister."
Earlier, Ms Hodge had told a private dinner organised by the Fabian Society that she had doubted Mr Blair's approach to foreign affairs as far back as 1998, because of his belief in imposing British values and ideas on other countries. According to the Islington Tribune, she said she had accepted Mr Blair's arguments on the threat posed by Iraq because "he was our leader and I trusted him" - before adding: "I hope this isn't being reported."
Ms Hodge was unavailable for comment yesterday, but a spokesman told the Evening Standard that she had not made the remarks. Asked if they reflected her opinions, he added: "I'm not in a position to comment on her private views."
A Downing Street spokesman said he knew nothing of the reported comments. "Margaret Hodge voted for military action in Iraq. Since then, she has always spoken in favour of it. We have a prime minister, a government, that is trying to bring the country together," he said, but added that nobody was disputing "the difficulties there are in Iraq". The Islington Tribune said its editor, Eric Gordon, had taken a shorthand note of the meeting in London, and it had checked the story thoroughly.
Pat Haynes, secretary of the Islington Fabian Society, did not recall the word "mistake", but added: "She said that if she knew then what she knows now, she would not have voted for the war." He did not realise a journalist was at the meeting, he added. But Chris Roche, the Labour member who took Mr Gordon to the meeting, told Sky News: "Everyone knew there was a journalist there."
In May Ms Hodge was criticised by Labour activists after telling a newspaper that eight out of 10 of her constituents were considering voting for the BNP.