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There is a strong chance that the new inquiry will finish Mr Blair

There is a strong chance that the new inquiry will finish Mr Blair

7 February 2004

12:00 AM

7 February 2004

12:00 AM

I am not an expert on the sleeping habits of adolescents. But I have consulted a number of authorities, viz parents. Their conclusions were unanimous. Cherie Blair’s claim that anxieties over Hutton had disrupted her teenage/student children’s sleep is not credible. It may be difficult to persuade such youngsters to go to bed. Once they are horizontal, forget sleeplessness in the small hours. They are much more likely to need a wet sponge at midday. An insomniac adolescent is as improbable as a father who does not notice that £500,000 of savings have been used to buy student flats. If Mrs Blair cannot come up with better stories, she ought to go back to protecting the family’s privacy.

It is possible that worries about what Hutton might say did keep Mr and Mrs Blair awake. If so, they have seen nothing yet. Even though the Hutton report may have vindicated the PM, this did him no good at all, and the allegations from Brian Jones of the Defence Intelligence Service are a further embarrassment. Moreover, there is a strong chance that the new inquiry will finish Mr Blair. He wants it to conclude its proceedings by the summer — at least one of its members thinks that this will not be possible — in order to give himself the maximum recovery period before an election. But there is no recovery from the destruction of moral authority.

If that were to happen, some of the credit should go to Michael Howard. In a polite but obdurate phone call, he insisted to the Prime Minister that the Butler inquiry’s terms of reference must include the government’s use of intelligence material. Mr Blair tried to resist. He wanted to restrict its scope to the intelligence services. Mr Howard made it clear that without the broader remit, the Tories would not participate.

Last week, immediately after the publication of Hutton, Michael Howard was worsted in the Commons, largely because he had faced one of the harder tasks since his forebears were set to make bricks without straw. But any resulting damage to Tory fortunes will prove insignificant in comparison with the new inquiry, which is why the PM wanted to limit its scope.

Admittedly, Lord Butler’s team are not the sort of personalities who would expect to bring down prime ministers. The two former civil servants, Robin Butler and John Chilcot, are classic examples of the British public service at its finest. Honourable, straight, with a profound commitment to an impartial civil service, they both spent their distinguished careers ensuring that the Queen’s government would be carried on, whoever was in office. That ethos, that sense of duty, is ingrained in their characters.


The same is true of Peter Inge, one of the ablest soldiers of the past 40 years. In terms of original thinking, he would rank behind Carver or Bagnall, but they were sometimes too original for the good of Nato military doctrine. Field Marshal Inge can be tough. When he was a General in Germany, he was notorious for his ferocity towards those who could not meet his standards. It was said that he never regarded any exercise as complete until he had broken at least one half-colonel’s career. Nigel Bagnall, himself not known for tolerating incompetence, once told Peter Inge to go easier on his subordinates.

Not that he will set out to be tough on Tony Blair. Nor will the two civil servants. We can be certain that their conclusions will be understated. But in one respect, none of them will be able to hold back. They will be rigorous in the pursuit of truth, both out of duty and because they cannot help it. It is not in their natures to be anything else. This is bad news for Mr Blair, though not for the intelligence services.

The SIS is a little uneasy about the Butler process. After all, it will be the fourth inquiry in a row. The Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee, the Intelligence and Security Committee, Hutton and now Butler: this is time consuming, in an already over-stretched organisation.

Time may be under pressure; reputations will not. In their professional capacities, Lord Butler, Sir John and the Field Marshal have had a long acquaintance with MI6. They have come to know its leading figures, I suspect that they all believe that the service is now in at least as good shape as ever before in its history. They will also sympathise with the difficulties of intelligence work in Iraq.

By creating a terrorised state, Saddam Hussein made it as hard as possible for foreign intelligence services to operate. Equally, given the man’s character, it was reasonable to assume that after two failed conventional wars against his neighbours, the next phase would be WMD. In the understandable absence of reliable material, which was worse: underestimating the danger from Saddam or overestimating it? There can be only one answer.

That does not justify the impression which Tony Blair gave, and which he knew to be misleading, that Saddam had terrible weapons which could threaten Britain in 45 minutes. The Butler inquiry has not been allowed to consider the PM’s reasons for going to war, which is a pity. It would be fascinating to know why Mr Blair took the decision.

In behind-the-arras briefings, No. 10 has let it be known that once he was convinced that the Americans were bent on war, Mr Blair felt that they must not fight alone. The implication is that by siding with the President, Mr Blair also hoped to be able to restrain him.

This may have been part of Tony Blair’s thinking, but I do not believe that it is the whole picture. In Washington, where they think that they have got to know Mr Blair quite well, they seem convinced that his support was much more positive. In their view, he did not want to restrain Mr Bush, but to ride shoulder to shoulder with him. Tony Blair may have become a closet neoconservative.

The neocon vision of the Middle East has nothing to do with traditional conservatism; it is far too idealistic for that. It is easily explained. Over the past few decades, thousands of billions from oil revenue have poured into the Middle East, yet for all the benefits that this has brought to most of the people of the region, the oil might as well have stayed under the sand. Oil riches have merely created a moral swamp with a global reach to spread its plagues. In response, containment would not only be immoral; it would be na


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