They thought it was all over. The boys were home at last and Iraq was history. Who but historians were interested now? Besides, Iraq was Blair’s history, nothing to do with the present regime. But it’s not over, not at all. Instead, the Chilcot public inquiry into Britain’s role in Iraq is quietly but surely turning into a new disaster for Labour. The old ghosts are raised day after day. Old questions are asked — not just of Tony Blair and his communications manager, Alastair Campbell, but of all the cabinet and every MP who voted for war. A drubbing on BBC television’s Question Time — where members of the public quiz a panel — of hapless minister Peter Hain shows what’s afoot. Iraq has leaped out of the grave, seeking its bloody revenge.
Foreign secretary Jack Straw and former defence minister Geoff Hoon give evidence next week, another uncomfortable reminder of how undead the war will be at the election later this year. The main event — Tony Blair soon — may be an anti-climax, despite thousands entering the ballot for seats. The journalist Fern Britton stole Chilcot’s thunder with an interview, so now we know Blair’s state of mind. On show will be the strangeness of his supreme self-belief, the certainties of his self-righteousness. But he is immune, sealed in his gilded private-jet world of lucrative lectures and directorships, sanctified with religious work. Chilcot will leave his reputation exactly where it was — ruined already.
The damage will be to those still in power. Who else to blame, now we are reminded of it all — the dodgy dossier and George Bush’s “Yo Blair” casual contempt? Ministers are asking why Gordon Brown thought an inquiry to dig up the war was wise just before an election? Only a few obsessives would have kept nagging for one. They know the real reason why: it lies deep in Brown’s dark old rivalry with Blair. When about to take over, Brown gleefully promised it of his own free will as one of those “I’m not Tony” symbolic gestures that at first seemed to augur so well for a new start.
Brown wrongly reckoned that shining a searchlight on Tony Blair’s greatest error would reflect well on himself in comparison. An inquiry would suck out the last poison from the Iraq debacle and place blame fair and square on the man who did it. Brown wanted it held in private, like the Falklands War inquiry. It was a blow when Sir John Chilcot said otherwise. But even so, since Labour won a post-Iraq election, Brown thought the issue dead. It isn’t now. Ministers report that those in their constituencies who had calmed down are all riled up again.
Holding the inquiry in public changes the tone of the evidence: it’s every man for himself now. Knight after knight, plus the odd major general, emerges into the light from London’s corridors to justify themselves and knife the politicians, sliding their stilettos between the ribs, often an unedifying sight. Chief among the vicars of Bray is Sir Christopher Meyer, former US ambassador, blaming the government for failing to get sufficient leverage in Washington, claiming he had “great reservations” about the diplomatic process leading up to the war. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, ex UN ambassador, wringing his hands, says if weapon inspectors had been given more time, war could have been prevented: he “had considered resigning”. Sir William Ehrman, ex-Foreign Office director general, asked how he had seen the threat from Saddam, said nonchalantly, “Not top of the list.” The ex-ambassador to Iraq mocked the US for “touching faith” that Iraqis “would be grateful and dancing in the streets”.
Major General Tim Cross had warned that Iraq “could descend into chaos” with planning “woefully thin”. Lord Turnbull, cabinet secretary, claimed Iraq was only a minor part of his work. He felt “sullied” by Abu Ghraib. (Doesn’t every war let loose such horrors?) He praised the then foreign secretary, Robin Cook, as the only one to say containment of Saddam was working well: “I am sorry he is not around to take credit for that.” All Labour’s cabinet secretaries turned on them once out of office — not a word until the pensions are safe.
Most of these mandarins seem to have known this adventure was unnecessary, pre-ordained by no more than Blair’s determination to stick by the US, where Britain had little influence: Bush’s talk of going via the UN was a “fobbing off” and there was a strong risk of post-war chaos. Indeed, comments like these could be heard in London at the time, with eye-rolling and sighs. So why didn’t they resign? There are some bad decisions so serious that no one with their knowledge and authority should have stood by and let it happen. The bullying braggadocio of Alastair Campbell and the self-certainty of Tony Blair seem preferable to those now weaseling out of their own responsibility. Blair and Campbell will defend every word in the dossier, they still believe “Britain should be proud” and that Iraq is a better place thanks to them. These two warriors most responsible for the (lowest estimated) 100,000 Iraqi deaths and the 179 British deaths must stick to their guns: sorry would hardly help.
As the inquiry drags on, breaking for the election, the gathering weight of opprobrium will fall on those still in power — Gordon Brown and his cabinet. Pressure will grow for Brown to give evidence before the election, after Campbell stuck in his own knife: “He was closely involved.” Peter Hain did his best to defend himself this week: he had believed in WMD and trusted the private briefings from Sir John Scarlett who was the director general of MI6, the British secret intelligence service. Saddam himself confessed to pretending to have weapons, once arrested. But hammered by Chris Huhne of the clean-hands, Liberal Democrats, who opposed the war, Hain flailed.
The inquiry is a reminder of all the questions: why didn’t they wait for Hans Blix to finish his inspections? The absence of WMD would have become clear. Why then? Why the rush? Why Bush? It all comes flooding back at just the wrong time. Although more Labour MPs voted against the war than for it, although most Tories, including Cameron, voted for it, although he would have gone to war with equal alacrity, it bounces off them. It wasn’t their war.
Gordon Brown said the inquiry was “to learn the lessons”. Will those lesson include abandoning the misguided fantasy of our “special relationship” with America and embracing our natural allies in Europe? No sign in either party of preparing for a less presidential prime minister. No sign of learning that coalition governments are not “weak”, as Blair said, but wiser, as Europe proved. One lesson is the danger of group—think in power — and sometimes the wisdom of the crowds on the streets.