A private investigation into the Iraq war will only backfire on Gordon Brown, writes Chris Ames
Does Gordon Brown really think he will get away with a secret Iraq inquiry that — surprise, surprise — will report after the general election? Compared with the alternative, you can understand why he would try to sweep the issue under the carpet for a bit longer but for all his talk of reform and openness, today Brown finds himself on the wrong side of a very big argument.
Allowing his long-promised inquiry to be labelled a cover-up already looks like another of Brown’s classic misjudgments. It is astonishing that the prime minister has announced an inquiry in a form that is opposed by both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. If you are going to go for an establishment stitch-up, at least get the establishment on board.
At a meeting of the Commons public administration select committee last Thursday the great and the good were in near unanimous agreement that the inquiry should take place largely in public, and that Brown would not get away with a secret one. He might have done 20 years ago, but after the Hutton Inquiry and the expenses scandal, the public just won’t wear it.
Brown says his secret inquiry will be able to see all the papers, but this is a red herring. Hutton had access to many sensitive papers and published most — but not all — of them. He even questioned witnesses in public about the content of documents that were not published.
There is in any case a danger of exaggerating the extent to which the inquiry will need to look at new documents that are truly sensitive, as opposed to embarrassing. At least as far as the pre-war deception is concerned, many of the key papers are already in the public domain, for example the joint intelligence committee assessments that were in large part published in the Butler report and the “Downing Street documents” that give a good idea of what happened from the spring of 2002 onwards, when Tony Blair let George Bush know that he was fully signed up to regime change.
The problem is precisely that Tony Blair said: if only you could see the very secret intelligence that I see. In claiming that preserving national security precludes any semblance of openness, Brown is playing the same trick.
Just as there are only so many times you can cry wolf, there are only so many times you can play the national security card. Earlier this year, the government had to disclose a memo from a Cabinet Office official, suggesting that the September 2002 Iraq dossier might make a better case without the caveats and qualifications that would appear in a genuine intelligence assessment. The government had blocked disclosure for over three years, claiming that national security was at stake.
Brown has also claimed that people will speak more frankly to a “private” inquiry. The proposition may or may not be true, but it is just as likely that witnesses giving evidence in public will justify their actions with excuses and versions of events that would not stand up to public scrutiny. In any case, after the expenses scandal, the idea that secrecy is being used to protect the reputation of public figures will engender more suspicion.
The prime minister also implied that the alternative to a wholly private inquiry is a wholly public one, but he knows that all kinds of inquiries, courts and select committees, manage to operate mainly in public and then go into closed session when necessary.
In reality, the arguments are probably less important to Brown than the cold hard politics. There was no way that he was going to allow his government’s dirty washing to be aired every day between now and the election.
But the downside could be just as bad. Both opposition parties and many Labour MPs are now coming out against him. Relatives of dead British service personnel have threatened to march on Downing Street. This morning’s papers are universally critical of his decision.
A secret inquiry is also storing up trouble. A fairly reliable rule of politics is that the more you are seen to be hiding something, the more likely it becomes that it will come out. A secret inquiry will increase the value of the information of which the public is being deprived and journalists, myself included, will redouble our efforts to obtain it. Evidence and papers are bound to leak, probably to resurface just before the election.
Brown has clearly learned nothing from the expenses scandal, in which the Commons speaker was forced out of his job largely because he was seen as the man who tried to hide the truth. He now risks becoming the Michael Martin of the Iraq cover-up.