Peter Oborne

Brexit, and the return of political lying

In their EU campaign, the Chancellor and Prime Minister have put dirty tricks back at the heart of government

Sir John Chilcot’s report into the Iraq invasion, due to be published on 6 July, is expected to highlight the novel structure of government created by New Labour following its landslide victory of 1997. As Tony Blair started to make the case for war, he began to distort the shape and nature of British government in several ways — the most notable being the deliberate debasement of the traditional idea of a neutral, disinterested civil service.

Under Blair, civil servants were told to concern themselves less with the substance than the presentation of policy. They were informed that their loyalty lay more with the government of the day, less with the British state. This had dramatic effects. Some officials (especially the ambitious ones) abandoned the Whitehall tradition of caution, astringency and integrity. They ceased to treat information as neutral and value-free. Instead, facts became malle-able building blocks towards the creation of a wider ‘narrative’ to be discarded or rearranged to fit the requirements of the party in power.

All of this allowed Tony Blair to mis-represent the intelligence on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. This meant that Britain could invade Iraq on the basis that Saddam presented a devastating threat to his neighbours — even though we possessed no evidence at all to prove it, and every reason to doubt that this was true.

When David Cameron became Prime Minister six years ago, there was every reason to suppose that he would end the abuses of the Blair/Brown era. Cameron made a show of reinventing cabinet government, and boasted that new systems were in place. For the first few years of the coalition, there were grounds for believing that these assurances were sincere. This is no longer the case. David Cameron and his chancellor, George Osborne, have returned to the cronyism and abuse of due process which defined the Tony Blair years.

Lying and cheating are, once again, commonplace in the heart of government.

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