In a third extract from John Burton's new biography, Keith Proud looks a how George Bush tried to prevent Tony Blair from being forced to resign over the war against Iraq.

TONY Blair would have quit. If he had lost in the Commons over Iraq in March, he would have gone immediately. But even a last minute phone call from George Bush could not persuade him to take an easier route.

It was mid-March 2003. The United Nations had collapsed, unable to bring itself to approve war against Iraq but also unable to offer a workable way of enforcing its wishes for Saddam Hussein to disarm as it had set out in a resolution in November.

And the United States had hundreds of thousands of troops in place in the Gulf, waiting for the word to go - to go it alone, if no one else was willing to turn up.

Whether Britain would be with them came down to a crunch in the House of Commons on March 19 (within 36 hours of the vote, the first bombs were falling on Baghdad).

"If he'd been defeated on that vote, he would have resigned," says Blair's agent John Burton, in his new biography, The Grit in the Oyster. "He told me that he wouldn't go back to the House for a vote of confidence, he'd just go.

"Bush was aware of this, and he phoned Tony and said: 'Don't think you have to commit yourself to the point where you lose everything. I will do it alone.'

"That was massive for Bush, and Tony said: 'Hey, if you believe something, are committed to something, you can't change your mind. I can't say that we'll go to war today but not tomorrow if the only reason for the change is that I might not be Prime Minister.'

'TONY was prepared to go to those lengths of losing everything, so sure was he that he was right in what he was doing."

Burton had known Blair since the day, 20 years earlier, Blair had come knocking on his door seeking a nomination for the Sedgefield seat. And towards the end of 2002 and at the start of 2003, as the war clouds over Iraq grew darker, Burton realised how much his man had changed.

Blair was, as usual, regularly on the phone to Burton during that period.

Burton had played a key role as a sounding board as Blair had re-shaped the Labour Party, and now he was eager to find out what Burton's antennae were picking up.

"I told him that it seemed to a lot of people as if he was rather out on his own on this one," he says. "I told him that the easiest thing for him to do was nothing. I told him that nobody likes Saddam Hussein but nobody particularly wants to go to war over it.

"I said that if Bill Clinton had been the American president, there would have been no problem, but it was George Bush and it was seen as if Tony was allying himself to a right-wing conspiracy.

"He replied without hesitation, and I realised how he had grown over the years. He said: 'Doing nothing is not an option, John. For our children and grandchildren's sake we must get rid of this man. Not only has he had weapons of mass destruction, but he is involved with the cells of terrorists. Doing nothing is not an option. We have to do something.' And that was that."

The media came to Sedgefield to find out how the war was playing with Blair's own constituents, apparently in the belief that many were totally against his actions.

"But they weren't," Burton asserts. "The vast majority were 100 per cent behind him. They didn't have a problem with the course of action on which he'd embarked. They didn't have any detailed information as to why he was doing what he was doing but they believed that if he was doing it then he must have a very good reason for doing so. In other words they believed him and they backed him.

"I believe the people stood firmly behind him because they respect him, they have confidence in his judgement, they like him and they support him - they really do."

So although there was a loud anti-war hubbub, Burton regularly transmitted to Blair that he had more support than he might imagine if he solely listened to the voices of the media.

"I always said to him that there was a big and supportive silent majority out there, the people who don't say anything," says Burton. "To some extent, it was the more 'involved' people who, even if they're just on the fringe of politics, voice their opinions, and it turned out that way."

On March 19, 2003, Parliament debated whether Britain should go to war against Iraq with the United States but without specific United Nations support. It was a day of high political drama played out against the backdrop of a large backbench Labour rebellion, the size of which would determine whether Blair could continue in office.

The day began with two junior ministers following the path trodden by Robin Cook, the leader of the House of Commons and former Foreign Secretary, in resigning.

Blair rose to speak at 12.30pm. He appeared to have shaken off the virus which had dogged him for weeks, making him look tired and haggard, and which had been the subject of almost as much media attention as his motives for going to war.

His impassioned speech lasted 60 minutes and was, quite possibly, his finest hour in the House since Sedgefield had first elected him in 1983. He concluded: "If this House now demands that at this moment, faced with this threat from this regime, that British troops are pulled back, that we turn away at the point of reckoning - and that is what it means - what then?

'WHAT will Saddam feel? Strengthened beyond measure. What will the other states who tyrannise their people, the terrorists who threaten our existence, what will they take from that? That the will confronting them is decaying and feeble.

"This is not the time to falter. It is time for this House to give a lead, to show that we will stand up for what we know to be right."

It was enough. In the end, 139 MPs voted against the Government - barely enough to embarrass the Prime Minister.

"Before that vote," says Burton, "there were people who were accusing Tony of sitting on the fence, listening to public opinion polls and spin doctors. After it, they could no longer level that accusation at him.

"My estimation of the man has always been extremely high but, if it's possible, after that vote it went even higher, essentially because of the strength of character he showed. At the same time, I was worried because I knew that we had a great prime minister who still had a lot to do, who was still trying to turn the National Health Service round, was still working on Third World issues, wanted to do so much more for education and for law and order."

How close Blair came to losing his premiership, and how Bush had offered him an easy way out, must explain why - despite the vehemence of the anti-war protests - the two leaders are so surprisingly close and why Blair is today taking Bush for a pub lunch in the constituency that made him.

John Burton has been an integral part of that constituency for the past 20 years. In his foreword to the biography, Blair says: "Without him, it must be doubtful whether I would ever have become Prime Minister."

The Grit in the Oyster: The Biography of John Burton, by Keith Proud, is published by The Northern Echo (£9.99), and is available from Northern Echo offices, the Echo Bookshop on 0800-0150552 and bookshops