Still doing deals

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.