PM has ‘nothing to lose’ by going before Chilcot
The Mole: PM calculates on Chilcot panel being more interested in Blair than him
Gordon Brown will be called to give evidence to the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq War before the General Election in the strongest possible signal that the Prime Minister believes he has nothing to lose.
The inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot had said Brown would not be called until after the election, but that left suspicions that Brown had something to hide. On Wednesday Brown wrote to Chilcot offering to give evidence before the election and Sir John was expected to announce today that Brown will be called before the inquiry in the next two months.
Brown's decision to expose himself to questioning over Iraq is seen by his own MPs as hard evidence that Downing Street believes there is little to fear from the inquiry. He was Chancellor throughout the run-up to the war, and so far the most damaging criticism of him has come from Geoff Hoon, the former Defence Secretary, who accused him of refusing to provide the extra funding for body armour.
Brown's allies believe he can easily sidestep that criticism by saying the defence budget was for Hoon to allocate. There will also be suggestions that it was sour grapes from Hoon who recently led the abortive 'coup' attempt against Brown with Patricia Hewitt. Both are regarded as busted flushes in Westminster.
Brown can also calculate on the inquiry not pressing him too deeply on his role in supporting the war. They will have already interviewed the main man – Tony Blair.
The former Prime Minister, who goes before Chilcot next Friday, will be closely questioned about his support for George W Bush in seeking regime change, following his disclosure in an interview with BBC TV presenter Fern Britton that he would have supported the removal of Saddam Hussein even if he had known no weapons of mass destruction were present in Iraq.
Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, is due to appear before the committee next week - before Blair on Friday - and he could deliver very damaging evidence against Blair. He could accuse Blair of ignoring his first, reasoned legal opinion that the legality of a war against Iraq was at best doubtful without evidence of WMD presenting a real threat, and without a second UN resolution specifically approving military action. That advice was never put to the Cabinet, which saw only a summary of Goldsmith's judgment.
However, Blair is seen by Brown as a master of the slippery answer. Peter Watt, the former General Secretary of the Labour Party, now pouring out bile in his memoirs, says Brown once told him: "You can never get a straight answer out of Tony". Blair also has an unshakeable belief that he was right to support Bush in overthrowing the tyrant of Iraq.
Blair's position has been helped by a closing of ranks by those who were closest to him during the run-up to the 2003 war. Alastair Campbell, Jonathan Powell and even Hoon have all refused to lay the blame on Blair.
Yesterday Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary at the time of the invasion, joined the club, refusing to open the trap door under Blair while underlying his own concerns. Straw said the claim that Saddam had WMD that could be used within 45 minutes was "an error". He also declared: "A foreign policy objective of regime change, I regarded as improper and self-evidently unlawful. It had not a chance of being a runner in the UK. It would not have got my support."
But when pressed by Sir Roderic Lyne, the former Downing Street adviser, to say whether Blair shared his view, Straw became coy, saying the committee would have to speak to Blair about that.
Still, Straw covered his back by underlining his concerns about the legality of the invasion while remaining basically loyal to Blair. A letter Straw sent to Blair in March 2002, before the PM went to Crawford to give his support to George Bush for military action, was conveniently leaked in the Sunday Times – just days before Straw was due to appear before the inquiry – in which the then Foreign Secretary warned that there was no majority among Labour MPs for war. "The rewards from your visit to Crawford will be few. The risks are high, both for you and for the Government," said Straw.
Before arriving at the Chilcot inquiry, Straw yesterday issued an 8,000-word memorandum saying he could have prevented Britain joining the US in the war by opposing it. "I was fully aware that my support for military action was critical," he said. "If I had refused that, the UK's participation in the military action would not in practice have been possible. There almost certainly would have been no majority in either Cabinet or in the Commons."
Straw also told the committee that he believed a second UN resolution was necessary. But Ed Davey, the Lib Dem MP, said if Straw had been convinced of that, why had he gone along with the war, regardless?
Straw's son, Will – now the editor of the influential leftwing Left Foot Forward website – gave his dad the perfect cue to dish the dirt on Blair in a recent interview with the London Evening Standard, accusing Blair of "betraying" his father.
"I am especially deeply angry with Blair for being duplicitous about his reasons for taking us to war with Iraq, hiding behind the WMDs, when he was content to prosecute war for regime change," said Straw junior. "And also for the unbelievably shoddy way he betrayed my father, demoting him from Foreign Secretary to Leader of the House, especially after my dad had been so loyal."
But Straw senior lived up to his name. He never had the bottle to resign over the war like Robin Cook, his predecessor, and yesterday he refused to put the knife into Blair. Instead, he offered a cough mint to Chilcot when he had a choking fit. No wonder Brown feels comfortable with the Chilcot committee, even before the election. They are beginning to look like a bunch of neutered pussycats. ·
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