How Tony Blair Survived His Scariest Week

George W. Bush had plenty to distract him at home this week—New Hampshire, of course; possibly even (or am I deluding myself?) new forecasts from the Congressional Budget Office, which added another trillion dollars to the 10-year fiscal deficit. Even so, the president may have spared a thought for his troubled friend across the ocean. Tony Blair has just endured the scariest few days of his political life.

On Tuesday, Britain's prime minister and America's staunchest friend faced a key vote in the House of Commons. Had he lost it, as it seemed he might, his time as prime minister could well have been up. The next day saw the publication of an independent report—written by a judge, Lord Hutton—into the apparent suicide of David Kelly, a government expert on weapons of mass destruction who, according to the BBC, had called into question the government's case for war against Iraq. If the Hutton report had censured Blair, the prime minister might have been forced to resign.

As it turned out, Blair avoided both hazards—just scraping past the first, gliding very smoothly past the second. Even so, he is left weakened at home, and of diminished value to the United States as an ally.

The two issues that threatened to bring down the prime minister were apparently unrelated, but politics wove them together. The vote was on a plan to raise university tuition fees. Not a life-or-death issue, you might suppose. But remember that the center of gravity in Britain's Labor Party lies well to the left of Blair: Many of the party's members of Parliament see the raising of university fees as an assault on core egalitarian principles, and they think it violates the spirit of an earlier election promise. Many of them, at the same time, are deeply fed up with Blair's leadership, and especially with his support for the White House over Iraq. The vote on university fees was a way for them to voice that broader discontent.

Labor's majority in the House of Commons is 161. Britain lacks the checks and balances built into America's Constitution, and, under normal circumstances, such a crushing margin would allow Blair's government to do whatever it pleased. Yet he won the tuition-fees brawl by just 5 votes; 72 members of his own side, despite all the threats and inducements that Blair's team could deploy, voted against him, and 18 abstained.

In Britain's highly disciplined system of party politics, this type of outcome is almost unheard-of. On top of which, Blair's victory was achieved partly by granting big concessions to the rebels on the already-modest substance of the policy. (For instance, the government has promised not to raise the new fees again before 2010. And, at less than $6,000 a year, even for elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, they are in any case very low and account for only a fraction of the actual costs.) So Blair came within a hair's breadth of premature political death, fighting not for a bold and radical reform but for a puny, eviscerated compromise.

What is worse, allies of Gordon Brown, the prime minister's turbulent chancellor of the exchequer (treasury minister) and heir apparent, let it be known that Brown had persuaded some would-be rebels to fall into line on the fees vote. Oh, the humiliation of that: rescued by the man whose fondest ambition is to see Blair driven out of Downing Street, so long as the conditions are then right for him to take over. If that is true, you may ask, what was Brown thinking in helping Blair out? Simple. He reasoned that Blair has already been weakened beyond recovery. Brown can therefore afford a show of loyalty and magnanimity. This approach will broaden his own support in the party and advance his own cause. Also, as one Labor MP was quoted as saying, "Gordon doesn't want the party to be too damaged when he gets it."

These perturbations over university finance must strike Americans as amusingly British. Blair's difficulties over the Hutton inquiry into the death of David Kelly may seem more pertinent. As you recall, Kelly was the BBC's source for reports last year that the government had misled the country over the threat posed by Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction. The purpose of the inquiry was to look into the circumstances leading up to Kelly's death, not to examine all aspects of policy toward Iraq. Britain's opposition parties are now demanding an inquiry into that much bigger question. They are right; there should be one. But the government says no.

The judge's digging in the Hutton inquiry, and the publication day by day of the evidence presented to him, gave a uniquely timely and detailed picture of the way the government had gone about its business concerning Iraq, even despite the investigation's narrow focus. Many things that the government would have preferred to hide—and ordinarily, in Britain's system, would have been able to hide—about the preparation of its case for war and the presentation of this case to the public have been laid bare. It was a grisly sight.

Yet Blair himself escaped criticism in the report, published on Wednesday. Senior managers at the BBC, in contrast, came in for serious criticism over the way they reported their story, and then stood unswervingly by it even while entertaining doubts about what they had broadcast. So the government is claiming a great victory. But, in some ways, it is as hollow as the victory over university finance. Because of what the evidence-gathering stage of the inquiry revealed, the prime minister has seen his reputation damaged and his political strength impaired.

Hutton or no Hutton, most of the British public probably still thinks that Blair lied to them about Iraq. I think he did not: I think he was sure Iraq had WMD. But he stood by while officials close to him—notably Alastair Campbell, his chief spin doctor—waged a reckless feud against their troublesome critics in the BBC.

In my view, the charge stands that the government misled voters about Iraq's WMD. The government did not, as the BBC alleged, make claims it knew to be false. But the government did spin the intelligence, subtracting qualifications and caveats before showing it to the public. And when the media, as a result, gave an exaggerated account of the dangers thought to be posed by Iraq's WMD, the government did nothing to correct the misapprehension. Worse, Downing Street in effect took Britain's apparatus for gathering and analyzing intelligence—the secret intelligence service (MI6) and allied departments—and folded it into the propaganda effort led by Campbell, thereby polluting the flow of information to the top of the government and damaging the credibility of the agencies concerned.

The British and American governments both insist that invading Iraq was the right thing, even though it now seems that Saddam Hussein had no stocks of WMD by the time the war began. I agree that it was the right thing on the basis of information available at the time; I am less sure it would have been the right thing had we known then what we know today about the supposed WMD. In Britain's case, at least, there would have been little or no popular support for a war fought on that basis.

The crucial thing now is to get to the bottom of the evident failure of intelligence leading up to the war. In recent weeks, since Muammar el-Qaddafi said he was willing to abandon development of Libya's WMD, more has been learned about that country's programs. Another very serious intelligence failure has thereby come to light—in this case, a failure to uncover the full extent of what was there. Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive action against new threats to American and Western security is the keystone of his foreign policy. It cannot be made to work unless intelligence can be gathered and analyzed far more accurately than at present.

David Kay, outgoing head of the Iraq Survey Group, whose mission was to find Iraq's WMD, said last week that no large stocks of such weapons are likely to be found. Later, he criticized the CIA for failing to give the president accurate intelligence before the war. Shortly after he made those comments, the White House said it would review the prewar intelligence effort. Better late than never, I suppose. In Britain, where the intelligence agencies got things just as badly wrong, no such review has yet been announced. The government, pretending to be unconcerned about its lack of credibility and reveling in what it sees as vindication in the Hutton report, continues to behave as though all went according to plan.

This reluctance to learn the lessons of recent intelligence failures is, to my mind, the most dangerous error that Bush and Blair have made as president and prime minister.