Still doing deals
John Kampfner says the secrecy of the Iraq inquiry is part of a continuing project to protect "brand Blair"
25 Jun 09

The charge sheet is long and yet the dock is empty. One of the most extraordinary aspects of Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war has been the ability of those responsible to evade any form of reckoning. For that they have many people to thank, including incurious journalists and pliant judges. But most of all, Tony Blair is in debt to his New Labour friends for their efforts to get him off the hook — recent days, Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown.

At each step of the way, Blair and his allies have outmanoeuvred their opponents. The death of Dr David Kelly in 2003 provided ministers, and particularly Alastair Campbell, with some of their worst moments. The emails, the hubris and the deceit would have done for many a world leader. Instead, thanks to some artful bullying by Campbell and the brilliant recommendation by Mandelson (drawing on his experience as Northern Ireland Secretary) to appoint Lord Hutton, it was the BBC and not the government that took the flak.

That was that, declared a smiling Blair. The government had been exonerated. A year later, faced with the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the prime minister then called upon Lord Butler of Brockwell. He made sure the terms of reference were as narrow as possible. Unlike the theatrical testimony before Hutton, Butler’s team met in private. As the only journalist called to appear before them, I took a close interest in the way they carried out their investigation. Their manner was Establishment-polite, but their questioning was refreshingly direct. One of the most impressive members of the team was a certain Sir John Chilcot. They asked me to elaborate on a number of revelations in my book, Blair’s Wars. They then asked me straight out if I believed Blair had lied. I replied that I did not suspect he had gone out of his way to tell falsehoods, but that, knowing the intelligence did not stack up to justify war, he willed the facts to fit. I considered my answer to be quite clever at the time. I now wish I had been a little less clever and a lot smarter.

Butler’s conclusions were coruscating but couched in mandarin-speak. Of the so-called dodgy dossier, he said it went to the outer limits of the intelligence available. He recorded surprise that, in spite of the ‘generally negative’ results of the UN inspectors, the quality of British intelligence was not reassessed. We found out only afterwards that Downing Street had prevailed on Butler to water down the most important passages.

What mattered was the press conference that accompanied the launch. Butler had the prime minister’s fate in his fingers. He decided beforehand that he would not give an opinion as to whether Blair should resign. Remarkably, nobody thought of asking him. Instead Butler said he did not hold any single individual responsible for the failures in intelligence. Within seconds, the Downing Street spin operation went into overdrive, thanking the eminent privy councillors for their work, insisting that their recommendations would be given all due weight, but celebrating the fact that they had been let off the hook once again. Butler would later regret his timidity.

As the occupation went from bad to worse, as the full extent of the government’s deceptions were revealed in the UK and in the US — American journalists were slower off the mark, but then continued to probe after most of their British counterparts had lost interest — Blair fended off all accusations. He insisted, insouciantly, that these two inquiries, plus probes by two hapless parliamentary committees, had ‘vindicated’ ministers and that it was time to ‘move on’.

And what of Brown? Far too little has been written about his role in the Iraq adventure. In 2002-03, the Chancellor was keen to ensure that his team talked to me for my book. They knew that many senior figures in Number 10, the Foreign Office and the military were co-operating and wanted to ensure their message got across. They were keen, under the cloak of anonymity, to portray the run-up to war as one of those examples of Blairite exuberance. Just wait for a serious prime minister, a professional, to take over, and all this kow-towing to the Americans, all this gunslinging would be a thing of the past. At no point, however, during the fraught meetings that led to war did Brown give anything but fulsome support to Blair. Not once did he seriously question the evidence. Not for him was the sifting through the intelligence material or the cross-questioning of the intelligence chiefs that Robin Cook undertook.

Indeed, one could argue that Brown’s role in the war effort was even more inglorious than Blair’s. He wanted it to be known that he had his misgivings, but he never aired them in public because at the same time he did not want to get on the wrong side of the many newspaper editors who were gung-ho for war. This was a piece of characteristic political calculation. In 2005, when Blair’s back was against the wall, and Alan Milburn’s general election strategy had stalled, Brown portrayed himself as the saviour of the campaign. When asked during a photo call whether he believed Blair had any case to answer for the war, he said emphatically he did not. In 2007, as he carried out his putsch, Brown was keen that the war formed a backdrop for Labour MPs’ discontent with Blair. He promised a new inquiry, with the implication that, this time, it would get to the truth. Once in power, he insisted that such an investigation should take place only after British forces had quit Basra.
Fast forward to June 2009: with his own back to the wall, Brown turned to the same forces that had on more than one occasion helped save Blair — Mandelson and Campbell. Mandelson’s vital role in the period between the local elections and the Monday after the announcement of the European results is well documented. In return for securing the loyalty of wavering Cabinet ministers, the prince of darkness secured his 30-word job title, one of the largest departments in Whitehall history and confirmation of his status as the number two in government. Not known until now is one vital part of their negotiation. Mandelson — on Blair’s behalf — set down specific conditions for the Iraq war inquiry. The deal, I am told, was explicit. Not only would the hearings be fully in private, but the committee would, as with Hutton, be manageable. Brown was instructed to ensure that the members of the inquiry would, in the words of one official, ‘not stir the horses’. Brown readily acquiesced. He was not in a position to do anything else. It was a done deal, even before James Purnell sent alarm bells through Downing Street with his resignation on the night of 4 June.

Brown, Blair and Mandelson were quite prepared for the fury of the anti-war brigade, the Guardianistas, as people like myself are referred to. The New Labour project was, after all, conceived on the idea of embracing important figures on the right and discarding people on the liberal left who care about issues such as civil liberties and ethics in foreign policy. They were surprised, however, by the number of great and good in Whitehall and the armed forces who denounced the idea of an inquiry in private. A number of figures in Downing Street, the Foreign Office and the Cabinet were unhappy with this arrangement. Ed Balls, for long Brown’s closest confidant but hardly a soulmate of Mandelson’s, was one of the first to express his misgivings in public. David Miliband accepted the terms, but was not altogether pleased.

Brown and Mandelson should have anticipated the concern of the military top brass. Many of these figures have long been furious about the government’s approach to Iraq. I saw this for myself, in microcosm, in the autumn of 2003. I was visiting an officers’ college, as part of my book promotional tour. I decided to tone down my standard introductory remarks in order not to come across as offensive and unpatriotic. I completely misread my audience. They were vituperative, under the cloak of ‘Chatham House rules’, about Blair’s massaging of the intelligence, about the lack of military preparedness, the lack of planning for the occupation, amid a general sense that soldiers were being sent to die for party political gain. That is the message Blair has been desperate to avoid being aired in public.
Thanks to the likes of General Sir Mike Jackson, the head of the Army during the invasion, the present holder of the post, General Sir Richard Dannatt, and Butler, the new inquiry will be largely held in public. While some of the inquiry members are unlikely to cause Brown and Blair any fuss, one or two, notably Sir Roderic Lyne, a former British ambassador to Moscow, are made of sterner stuff.

Chilcot has now made clear that as much as possible will be held in the open. However, watch carefully for the machinations, for the attempts made to exclude various witnesses and statements from public hearings. Watch for the attempts by Blair and those close to him to set the terms for their involvement. And watch for the role of Downing Street, as the general election becomes closer, to delay sensitive testimony until long after the players have disappeared from the scene.

As he worked to secure the job he craved, Brown saw the promise of an Iraq inquiry as a means of casting aside his friend (and briefly foe). He has no more interest in eking out the truth on the war than any of the others who went along with it. Mandelson’s involvement in this affair is more complicated. He has personally less to hide than Blair, Campbell and the others who were intimately engaged in the war planning. His motivation hinges around preserving the Blair Brand that he was instrumental in creating. He agreed a year ago to join Brown’s Cabinet in order to ensure that the Brand was not sullied. He agreed to prop up the Prime Minister earlier this month in order to ensure that the Brand was not completely destroyed.

The man who presided over the greatest foreign policy calamity of more than half a century has still not been nailed for it, and will not be nailed for it. For that he has his friends to thank.

Originally published in the Spectator