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.
Labels: Chilcot inquiry, Clare Short, Iraq, Iraq disaster, politics, Tony Blair