John Kampfner unveils the ignominious truth about Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq inquiry and reveals Peter Mandelson’s demand, when Brown’s future hung in the balance in early June, that the hearings be held in private. Even now Mandelson’s priority is to protect Brand Blair.
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.
Essential reading, particularly the last bit in bold. An attempt at a closed-doors stitch up, which has been derailed because of massive Establishment and Armed Forces anger. There are plenty of people with stories to tell...
In the vein of John Kampfner's post, here is my own observation. In late 2003 I ran a small discussion workshop (part of instructional techniques training) and the participants were a fairly mixed but representative bunch of personnel although all of us were of modest rank. My discussion was on the theme of Iraq - did the war meet the tests of legality, morality and national interest. It was a very good discussion, never make the mistake of assuming that the Armed Forces have a neutral political opinion (as Churchill did in 1945) and I was surprised by the outcome. Only a narrow majority (by show of hands) expressed the view that the war was justified - even in late 2003! The substance of the discussion was very interesting, as most personnel were drawing on their experiences or knowledge of the Balkans and the consequences that had arisen from UN and international inaction. This was only a one-off workshop, but I think it represents a striking truth - where there was support for Iraq, this was largely based on historical viewpoints of action versus appeasement (I suspect that the long shadow of WW2 featured in many minds) rather than any conviction of a real threat from Iraq, Saddam Hussein or WMDs. Given that mindset, I am not surprised of an enormous backlash from those who were in uniform at the time, following the lack of WMDs, the lives lost, and the well-known equipment and funding failures.
Here's a snippet I heard that shows Blair at work. An esteemed senior officer I know was briefing Blair on the air defence network in the wake of September 11 2001. Apparently it was SOP (standard operational procedure) for Blair to simply get up and walk out with his advisers when he had heard enough from such experts, without any courtesies...presumably a New Labour tactic of putting people firmly in their box.