Last week I was at a seminar in which a small group of ministers, academics and commentators were discussing the morality of politics, and how a disillusioned public could be re-engaged.
We talked of the role of the media, of the need for politicians to be more candid in their approach to issues ranging from tax-and-spend to immigration. We all nodded sagely. Then one of our number suggested we were missing the point: "The elephant in the room is Iraq."
It is easy for those of us who have sought to document every twist and turn of Tony Blair's sixth war to bang on about it ad infinitum. I try to pick my moments, so I was relieved that somebody else was introducing a subject that, in polite New Labour society, now dare not speak its name. I had been somewhat influenced by the warnings of government types - people I know and like - that I was out of touch with the popular mood. Only the London chattering classes talked about it. "Out there", Iraq was, they assured me time and again, almost an irrelevance. Theirs, I can now say with more confidence, is a case of wishful thinking.
Iraq does matter to people, terribly. In a three-day trip for the New Statesman to constituencies in Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, I spoke to about 80 people, a reasonably representative sample, at some considerable length.
All but one volunteered their thoughts on the issue. I did not bring it up, I merely asked people for their general views of the political situation. Some, I would estimate perhaps a fifth, defended it on two counts, removing Saddam Hussein and helping Americans who had helped us during world war two. Of the rest, perhaps a half said it was a terrible mistake, but that on balance they would continue to support Labour because of the domestic agenda. The other half vowed that as long as Blair remained prime minister they could not vote for him. The most commonly used word was "duped". The two most colorful remarks were: "He couldn't lie straight in bed he's so bent" and "He dropped a bollock over the war; the evidence wasn't there".
Having no experience of conducting focus groups or opinion polls, I cannot vouch for the science of my survey. Several ministers and MPs told me afterwards, however, that my findings roughly accorded with their experience of the mood.
People may not bring up Iraq when asked to list the issues that most matter, but they do seem to when talking more broadly about politics. They might not know the ins and outs of weapons of mass destruction or the attorney general's sudden change of mind, but they do feel they were not told the truth then, and are not being told the truth now. The latest revelations about the legal advice and the government's blithe dismissal of them reinforce that sense. The issue they consider is not: "Were we right to go to war?" or "Is President Bush good or bad?"or "Is it right to remove dictators?"; it is: "Were we lied to?"
I have never used the "l" word myself. It sets the bar impossibly high and it is very difficult to prove. Two years on from the war, the narrative is all but complete.
There is little that remains undiscovered. Publication of the attorney general's advice of March 7 2003 would do little more than confirm conclusions that offend anyone who cares about the probity and ethics of politics.
As I revealed in my book Blair's Wars, the PM gave his agreement to Bush at the president's ranch in Texas in April 2002, a year before hostilities began. From that point he was committed, and knew he had to do whatever it took to provide military sup port to the US. He knew the intelligence evidence was incomplete, but willed it to be compelling. He knew that any British reading of international law precluded participation without a second UN resolution.
When British diplomacy summarily failed, he sought anyone who might deliver a different legal interpretation. In their collective desperation, those around him, advisers and cabinet ministers, did whatever it took to help him. They knew the score, but hoped a successful war would allow them to get away with it.
The general election planners are desperate to ensure that Iraq is not an issue. Theirs is a sensible strategy, made easier by the opportunism of Conservatives whose original enthusiasm for the war was even more pronounced than Blair's.
There are no votes in admitting the true story, or in saying: "Look guys, I was in a terrible bind, what would you have done in my position?" And yet, as the teachers, retired miners and office workers I spoke to consider the dilemma facing them on May 5, I suspect that an old-fashioned sense of fair play may now be troubling more voters than politicians care to recognize.