Friday, March 05, 2010 

Blair before Brown.

To call Gordon Brown's appearance before the Chilcot inquiry deeply underwhelming would be putting it too kindly. Boring, mundane, and mind-numbing would all be more suitable. While Blair's sessions were compelling if not always electrifying, they were indicative of his overall character: defiant, certain, convinced of his own righteousness. Brown merely had all his bases covered, and was incredibly well prepared, as you'd expect.

The one thing we've never learned, and which Andrew Rawnsley's book hasn't touched on, is just how much Brown really did believe in the Iraq war. He naturally defended it today, even if he did so on the equally spurious grounds that Iraq wasn't living up to its international commitments, rather than on its non-existent WMD and the intelligence as presented then, although why he continued on insisting that there was no possibility of a second resolution because of Chirac's intransigence, the classic Downing Street smear from the time, was a moment of dishonesty. As we know from Clare Short's evidence, this was happening at a time when Brown was being shut out from the Blair circle, which goes some way to explaining why he hadn't seen many of the documents from the time which the committee asked him about. Equally though there is more than a reminder of Brown's similarity with Macavity, the mystery cat, who isn't there when there's dirty work to be done. It always helped Brown to not be associated personally with the war, even if he was the one writing the cheques. His evidence didn't shed any light on this, but that was to be expected.

While Brown shares responsibility with Blair, as indeed the whole cabinet at the time does, and if you want to stretch it even further, all those in parliament who voted for the war, it's Blair that is always going to remain the one person associated with the decision, for either good or bad, and whatever conclusion the Chilcot inquiry eventually comes to, that also is unlikely to change.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010 

Short shrift for Chilcot.

To approach Clare Short's evidence to the Chilcot inquiry properly, you have to know just how much the New Labour true believers around Blair hated her. She was, according to Alan Milburn, a "political bag lady". John Prescott called her "fucking mad". Alastair Campbell couldn't stand her, and throughout his diaries expresses his contempt in the usual understated fashion. As for Blair himself, he felt that he had to keep her on board as a sop both to the left and the few remaining Old Labour dinosaurs, even whilst he became exasperated at her for failing to "keep on message" as everyone else was expected. Most famously she was slapped down after giving an interview in which she commented on the possibility of the legalisation of cannabis, which she felt was an issue worth considering.

She was, and still is, one of those few politicians that dares to be something approaching an actual human being. That the public tend to like politicians that step out of line every so often or who are indiscreet was doubtless one of the reasons why as time ticked by the Blairistas turned even further against her. The one drawback of being such a person is that it can encourage the belief that you personally are the conscience of an organisation, and it was one that Clare certainly fell into, as perhaps even she would admit. Her failure to resign despite the feeling that the Iraq war was going to be a disaster is now something held against her by anti-war critics, but she was hardly the only person to either be deceived by Blair or who, despite agonising over whether to vote for it or not, made the wrong decision. Many who either abstained or voted for now regard it as their biggest ever mistake in politics; few however will ever get their revenge in as forcefully as Short did today.

It took her just eight minutes before she directly accused Blair of lying, after he told her in September 2002 that he was not planning for war with Iraq. What followed was evidence which contradicted much of what the inquiry has been told so far. According to Short: there was no real discussion of the policy towards Iraq in cabinet; Lord Goldsmith misled the cabinet when he presented his third and final opinion on the legality of the war on March the 17th, which Short alleged he had been lent on to change, even if she had no evidence to back up her claim; she confirmed that Gordon Brown was another of the ministers to be "marginalised" in the run-up to the war; and that she felt she had been "conned" by Blair's promises on the creation of a Palestinian state and the reconstruction of Iraq, pledges that stopped her from resigning at the same time as Robin Cook. In one of the most damning exchanges, Short made clear that she believes Blair was "absolutely sincere" in his policy on Iraq, so certain that what he was doing was right that he was willing to be deceitful in order to achieve his aims. This is almost certainly the best explanation as yet given to the inquiry as to why we went along on the coat-tails of America: Blair believed, and still does, that getting rid of Saddam was so important that he would do almost anything to achieve it, and did. He may have lied to get us there, but to him they weren't lies, or even untruths: he was simply making the strongest possible case he could.

With Robin Cook sadly no longer here to provide an alternative account of what really happened in cabinet in those months leading up to war, Short's evidence is as close as we're likely to get to the perspective of someone not completely on board or supportive from the beginning. It also seemed to be one which the inquiry itself didn't particularly want to hear: we've had criticism from others over how the war was planned for and conducted, but all in diplomatic language and scholarly or lawyerly tones, without anything approaching emotion. She hasn't blown open anything approaching a conspiracy, but she has finally given colour to an otherwise sepia-tinged, plodding spectacle. And with it, she's also got her own back on all those unprepared to say to her face what they really thought of her.

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Friday, January 29, 2010 

The last Blair show.

As it happened, you didn't need to bother paying any attention to Blair's performance before the Chilcot inquiry; you could instead have simply read it in this morning's Guardian. All Blair's main lines of argument were ready summarised and disclosed to Patrick Wintour, almost as if Tone himself had phoned up the paper's political editor and advised the hack on just how he was going to present his case. Surely not, doubtless the paper will protest: instead it was Blair's "friends" that had informed them of everything. It is though remarkable just how close his evidence was to that briefed to the Graun, especially on the September dossier: the paper said he'd now admit that they should have just published the joint intelligence committee's assessments, and lo, so it came to pass.

If Blair was initially nervous, his hands shaking as the session began, as some have claimed, then it's unclear what he was so worried about. He certainly shouldn't have been of the questioning, which varied from the obsequious and deferential all the way to the mildly troubling, like a small dog trying to hump your leg, embarrassing at first but easy to shake off. Around the only moment he faltered during the morning session (which I didn't see) was when asked about that Fern Britton interview in which he made clear that he would have attempted to remove Saddam even if he knew that Iraq didn't have any WMD. His explanation? That even he, with all his experiences of interviews, still had something to learn, and that in any case, he didn't use the words "regime change". It wasn't then that in a moment of weakness he had for once actually given an honest answer, but that he had, perhaps in that modern lexicon of politicians and celebrities, "misspoke".

This led me onto thinking that maybe we've approached this whole inquiry, if not the modern way in which we expect politicians to be interviewed and interrogated in the wrong way entirely. After all, it's not Blair's first slip to a "soft" interviewer: he previously said to Michael Parkinson that God would judge him on Iraq, which again, might well be what he truly believes. Instead then of having a panel made up of historians, mandarins and other peers of the realm, we should of had the thing chaired by dear old Fern, assisted ably by Davina McCall, Graham Norton, Alan Carr and Coleen Rooney. If nothing else, Carr asking about the legality of the war and the wording of UN Resolution 1441, and what difference there was between "consider" and "decide" when it came to what happened if there was a "material breach" by Iraq might have been amusing for oh, 5 seconds at least.

As the afternoon session drew on, and as it became clear that even Sir Roderic Lyne, the only panel member who has even been close to forensic in his questioning whilst also drier than dry in both his wit and ill-disguised contempt, wasn't as much as laying a finger on our esteemed former prime minister, you could sense that Blair was almost beginning to enjoy himself. The whole world used to be his stage; now the closest he gets are corporate junkets where he spouts platitudes and walks away with a massive cheque, which although doubtless pleasing on the bank balance, just isn't the same. He quite obviously misses being a politician, and although you can say what you like about his politics, and this blog has plenty of times, he remains untouchable at what he does. If David Cameron is Blair's heir, then he doesn't even come close, or hasn't as yet; the air-brushed pretender to Blair's possibly Botoxed brow.

And as it went on, the higher Blair's flights of fancy flew. Why, if we hadn't confronted Saddam in 2003 then by now he would likely be competing with an attempting to go nuclear Iran. It didn't matter that Iraq, being almost completely disarmed in 2003, with even his slightly out-of-allowable range missiles being dismantled by the UN inspectors, would have had to spent those years, still impoverished by sanctions which were never likely to be lifted rebuilding his army from the bottom up. You had to wonder just how he wanted you to re-imagine history: should we be thinking as if the UN inspectors were never allowed back in at all, or as if we'd backed down in March 2003 and given them more time? In the first instance the crippling sanctions would have continued, and in the second eventuality it would have been discovered that Iraq didn't have the WMD stocks which Blair and the intelligence so forcefully stated that they had. In either case Iraq would have been left as the weak link, with Iran the most to gain.

Unlike others who, if not exactly chastened by appearing before the inquiry, have at least admitted that not everything went according to plan and that they had regrets about their involvement, Blair was as rigidly certain as ever of the righteousness of all that he had touched. If things went wrong, it wasn't Blair or the coalition's fault: it was everyone else's but. It wasn't that the planning for after the invasion had been inadequate, it was that al-Qaida and Iran had actively opposed the Iraqi people's rightful safe passage into a post-Saddam era. Despite admitting that Iraq had no links al-Qaida, Iran and al-Qaida as the day wore on grew increasingly inclusive, until finally Blair suggested that the two had been actively working together. Considering that the Mahdi army and the other Iranian-backed groups fought against the Sunni militant groups which sprang up in the aftermath and that this reached its peak during 2007 when civil war and sectarian cleansing of entire parts of the country was taking place, this was something of a revelation. To top that, Blair had to go some, and he managed it with his beyond chutzpah quoting of child mortality figures in the first three years of the decade, as compared with now. That those mortality rates are in part almost certainly attributable to the sanctions regime was something that no member of the inquiry felt like bothering him with.

Asked whether he had anything else to say as the session drew to a close, he simply replied in the negative. Lord Goldsmith, giving evidence on Wednesday, took that opportunity to imply in diplomatic language that even if he had decided that the war was legal, in difference with all the advisers in the Foreign Office and almost every other lawyer versed in international law, it didn't necessarily mean that he thought that it was right, or that it had gone well. Blair could have used it to express his discomfort for all those that have lost their lives, and indeed, continue to do so as a direct result of our actions, even if not at the hands of the coalition. Despite this, you almost expected Blair's interrogators to rise to their feet and applaud, just as Cameron attempted to get the Tories to do on his last prime minister's questions. Delusional to the very last, but still religious in the fervour of his belief that he did the right thing, never has there likely been such relief that Gordon Brown is now our prime minister.

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