Alastair Campbell will one day regret defending Blair
Robert Fox: While Campbell protested his and Blair’s innocence, Dutch report exposed the truth
Alastair Campbell gave his Edith Piaf act to the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war yesterday. Despite his protestations about regretting rien in his role in preparing the infamous dossier for going to war and being less than transparent with parliament, press and public, he may yet come to repent of his studied performance of facetiousness before the committee.
He said he stood by "every single word" that appeared in the crucial dossier on Saddam's weaponry which appeared in September 2002. This was the dossier accompanied by the alarming headline in the Evening Standard, '45 Minutes from Destruction', about whose provenance Campbell, the self-confessed master of spin and rainmaker of news in Tony Blair's Britain, claimed to know nothing.
Campbell's technique was that of the great Geoff Boycott at the crease - block everything and hope to bore the opposition into error and capitulation. This mode of play had served him well through previous inquiries, after all.
Interestingly, those closest to him in the media at Westminster thought he had done pretty well again. The problem was that Campbell thought he was strutting his stuff only at the annual amateur dramatics in the village hall of village Westminster – and no further.
However, as in the best of plays by Ibsen or Chekov, something happened offstage during his performance that dramatically changes the complexion of what he was or was not owning up to. While he was protesting that Tony Blair, honourable as Brutus, acted with the deepest sincerity and the best of intentions, a high-powered inquiry headed by a former Dutch supreme court judge, Willlibrord Davids, reported that the Netherlands and its allies had no excuse under any interpretation of international law for going to war in Iraq in March 2003.
In particular, the Davids Inquiry focused on a letter sent by Tony Blair to Jan Pieter Balkenende, the Dutch prime minister, urging him to join the war coalition led by America and Britain. In the letter Blair allegedly argued that Saddam was a menace who must be checked by force urgently. The Davids Inquiry was not allowed to see the letter as it was recalled by the UK because it was deemed confidential to the British prime minister and it is against protocol that it should be disclosed.
However in Dutch constitutional practice a prime minister may not keep such documentation and information to himself in matters of war and peace. He is bound to make full disclosure to his foreign minister at least – and in turn to his sovereign.
This is the third inquest into the Netherlands' participation in the Iraq war in 2003; though the Dutch didn't join the invasion, they sent troops in support and to help with the occupation. This is the harshest judgment of the Iraq war so far, and comes from a legal system and tradition of men like Hugo Grotius, a founding father of the modern concept of international law.
As a result, Campbell's stonewalling yesterday may have done him and those he worked with in government little good – and in fact quite a lot of harm. There was no regret about claims that Saddam was an immediate threat. There was no regret either about the way he and Blair didn't fully level with the public and parliament about the early written pledge to George W Bush, by April 2002 and possibly earlier, that the UK would commit a division of troops alongside the US if it came to a scrap in Iraq.
In the 1956 Suez crisis, prime minister Anthony Eden had to quit once it became clear he had lied to parliament about a secret pact with France and Israel to invade to take back the Canal Zone from Egypt. For almost a year before British troops went into Iraq on March 20, 2003, Blair and his team did not fully disclose their decisions and judgments to voters, parliament, or even Cabinet colleagues.
Secretly generals were told to prepare for action in late summer 2002, yet they were not allowed to fully equip and train for the fray for fear of alerting the British people that their prime minister had already crossed his Rubicon and had decided to commit his country to fight if Uncle Sam so demanded.
Yesterday Campbell astutely conscripted the present prime minister, Gordon Brown, into the whole Iraq enterprise, stating that Blair consulted Brown on all the major issues. Even so the main attractions in this most theatrical of inquiries are Campbell and Blair, the Jeeves and Wooster of this blackest of political farces.
The Campbell performance, masterly in its own way, has ensured that unlike the Hutton and Butler inquiries, the report from the Chilcot panel will not be the last word. There is now too much information, well attested and sourced and from all kinds of places, to give the Blair team the benefit of the doubt. Campbell's parting jibes as he left the hearing that this is all largely got up by the media were beyond risible.
Many of his colleagues in government past and present must be cursing his avalanche of eloquence yesterday, for his torrent of words warned friend and foe alike that he is a weapon of ultimate self-deception and that this is far from over. ·