Andrew Gilligan

Bit by bit, Blair is forced to face the truth

Andrew Gilligan finds that Lord Butler has purportedly exonerated the Prime Minister, while supporting many key charges against him, the government and the intelligence services

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It is curious sometimes how life comes full circle. Exactly a year ago I was sitting in an office at the BBC, listening to government ministers denying all wrongdoing. As I write this, I am sitting in an office at the BBC, waiting to be interviewed, listening to government ministers denying all wrongdoing. Their task is rather harder than it was before.

Lord Butler’s committee has pronounced on the great question — did the government mislead us all over the reasons for war? To the vast majority of the public, this is an issue about as opaque and mysterious as the religion of the Pope or the sanitary habits of bears in woods; but successive official inquiries, and a stubborn minority of the media, have been unable to bring themselves to say that Tony Blair committed deceit.

For the foreign affairs committee and the intelligence and security committee, the reason is simple. As they both complained, they were denied the evidence they needed to come to a fully informed verdict; the FAC was also directly lied to by Alastair Campbell. For Lord Hutton, who did see most of the paperwork, the reasons are more puzzling. My own feeling is that he was simply an innocent who was a little starstruck by the mandarins in his witness box (how could they possibly be dissembling to me? They’ve got knighthoods!).

Now, however, we finally have an official inquiry which has reached Key Stage 2 in the syllabus — finding that a government and its servants did something wrong. The members may not quite have got beyond this to advanced coursework — actually apportioning blame — but we cannot have everything.

It is fair to say that the intelligence services emerge even more damaged from this than the Prime Minister does. Their sources were often wrong, inappropriately assessed, second- and third-hand or even, in one critical case, completely untested. No. 10 will make much of the fact that Butler clears the government of knowing embellishment. But some of his findings appear to conflict with that judgment.

Fifteen days before the government told us, in 2002, that the evidence of Iraq’s WMD programmes was considerable and incontrovertible, the JIC, it now emerges, was warning ministers that the evidence was patchy and fragmentary.

‘More weight was placed on the intelligence than it would bear,’ says the report. ‘The consequence was to put the Joint Intelligence Committee and its chairman into an area of public controversy ...We see a strong case for the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee being a person who is demonstrably beyond influence.’

The dossier ‘put a strain on [the JIC] in seeking to maintain their normal standards of neutral and objective assessment’. The judgments in the dossier ‘went to the outer limits ...of the intelligence available’.

On the 45-minute point, the thing which I claimed had been included as part of a drive to sex up the dossier, Butler is scathing. The intelligence was wrong, it should never have been in there, and this led to ‘suspicions that it had been included because of its eye-catching character’. Butler finds that key elements of the dossier were misleading, because they were presented without the necessary caveats and explanations.

Lord Butler is, of course, the ultimate establishment trusty — the man who cleared Jonathan Aitken of lying — so the fact that he has come to these relatively strong judgments shows just how serious the problems were. Yet perhaps his very status as the official’s official may also explain the nature of the verdict.

Butler is known to believe that one of his own worst mistakes was to grant Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell, two of the central figures in the dossier fiasco, powers to order civil servants around. Downing Street was sentenced by this decision to years of sofa-bound ‘den-ocracy’, with the country run through unminuted chats in the Prime Minister’s study. ‘We are concerned that the informality and circumscribed character of the government’s procedures risks reducing the scope for informed collective political judgment,’ says Butler. This report is almost certainly the mandarins’ revenge.

It is interesting, too, that the committee members with the closest links to the military — Michael Mates, a former army colonel, and Field Marshal Lord Inge — were reportedly the keenest to reach a sharp judgment. The armed forces deeply resent being sent to war on a false prospectus.

As I write, I can already see New Labour trusties fanning out into all the key broadcasting studios, proclaiming that the Prime Minister’s integrity remains unsullied and that the BBC’s dastardly allegations are still not substantiated. But though Lord Butler may not name names, he does name deeds. We can fill in the names.

If Hutton had made the findings that Butler has made, it is possible that the Prime Minister could have been damaged enough to resign. Logically, of course, the same thing might be expected to happen now — but it probably won’t. Timing is everything in these matters. The Prime Minister will, no doubt, deploy the same defence which he used during Hutton — that to question his integrity, which has not been questioned by Butler, is simply too inconceivable and ridiculous to be contemplated. He does this rather well, but he is having to do it a little too often for comfort these days.

In his interview at the weekend, I thought the Archbishop of Canterbury’s most interesting observation was not merely that Mr Blair would be ‘called to account ... at the Judgment Seat’ for his actions over Iraq, but that ‘the essence of judgment is simply to be face to face with the truth — and no escape’. For 18 months, Mr Blair has tried every possible trick, swerve and wriggle to avoid coming face to face with the truth. He has tried to change the subject. He has picked a largely phoney diversionary fight with the BBC. He has taken people down, won tactical victories, but the truth has come inexorably closer and closer, and now, with Butler, closer still. The Prime Minister is standing on a sandbar which is gradually being washed away.

We may now expect a slight change of tack. Mistakes may be admitted, but always honest ones. With New Labour, there can be no other kind. Mr Blair may apologise — that the spies unfortunately got it wrong. The hapless John Scarlett will be retained in his post, if at all possible. Mr Scarlett may have done British intelligence a great deal of harm. It is difficult to imagine how MI6 can recover its reputation while it is led by the man who got it into the mess in the first place. But he’s not a bad spy; and he makes an excellent lightning-conductor.

The reason, I think, that so many people still doubt Mr Blair’s good faith is partly the evidence presented to Lord Hutton, which showed a systematic tightening-up of the dossier drafts. In the 10 September 2002 draft, the threat from Iraqi WMD to UK interests was merely potential; by 16 September it had become ‘current and serious’. The first phrase was written by an intelligence officer; the second, from the Prime Minister’s foreword, was written by Alastair Campbell.

But it is perhaps more the Prime Minister’s own behaviour since the war, and that of his team, that undermines their protestations of integrity. If their mistakes were honest ones, what would have been the harm in admitting them? Why were many of the things which Lord Butler now finds as fact actually denied? If Mr Campbell’s involvement in hardening up the 45-minute claim was, as he maintains, innocent, why did he conceal it from the foreign affairs committee, when it was the central feature of their inquiry? Why did the Ministry of Defence attempt to conceal the Defence Intelligence Staff’s objections to the 45-minute claim — objections completely endorsed by Lord Butler — from the intelligence and security committee?

I will not be holding a grand press conference in front of a sweeping staircase, or calling for resignations at all levels. I recognise what Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair did not — that no one got this completely right. But after a bad year for the BBC, this might be a good week for it to stop picking at the scabs inflicted by Lord Hutton and to regain some faith in its journalism. It remains the most trusted news organisation in the country, better and more respected by a mile than any of its sanctimonious press critics.

It is clear that my story was overwhelmingly correct; and that the mistake I made was a wholly insufficient foundation for the volume of attack belatedly directed at it by the government. Journalism, my journalism, got closer to the truth, more quickly, about Mr Blair’s case for war than anything else did. It may well be that we would not have learnt all that we have learnt since without it. So I feel happier this week.

The Prime Minister has not been sentenced to death by Butler. But he may have suffered a worse fate — survival, with an endless cloud marked ‘Iraq’ above him.

Andrew Gilligan is defence and diplomatic editor of The Spectator.