You can tell when high summer comes to Westminster. Smartly dressed groups, lost and ill at ease — the women in hats and best frocks — wander through Westminster Hall in search of Buckingham Palace garden parties. The Catalpa trees in New Palace Yard burst into bloom, and their viscous, sickly scent spreads everywhere. These are always dangerous, fretful weeks. The whips hate them; they sense trouble, and yearn to close politics down and send their MPs away to the safety of family holidays.
Last week MPs and ministers moved about in little groups. The Blairites clung to each other for protection against the supporters of Chancellor Gordon Brown, angry and dispossessed. Monday belonged to the Brown faction. Their hero — the man they want in Downing Street by October — set out his spending plans in a demonstration of raw power. The Chancellor ranged massively beyond his formal Treasury brief, announcing not only the sums his Cabinet colleagues have been awarded, but how they were going to spend them too. He effectively outlined the government’s strategy for the general election. This was the speech of a prime minister, not a chancellor. Tony Blair, sitting beside his rival, was frozen, glassy-eyed and diminished.
It seemed that Wednesday, too, might belong to the Brownites, with the publication of the Butler report. The Prime Minister was fighting not just for his political life, but for something far more valuable. He was fighting for his soul. Something unusual happened to Tony Blair after September 11. He stopped seeing himself as a workaday pragmatic politician like his predecessors John Major, Jim Callaghan and Harold Wilson. Instead he became aware that he possessed certain unique insights. He became that dangerous thing, a man of destiny.
This was how he sold the Iraq war to a reluctant British public and a hostile Labour party. The Prime Minister informed us that secret documents had crossed his desk that convinced him of the terrifying and urgent threat to the security of Britain and the world posed by Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction. Hence the dossier of September 2002. It was written to serve Tony Blair’s near-messianic purpose and make the case for action against Iraq.
In fact Coalition troops swiftly discovered, in the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad, that the Prime Minister’s sensational claims did not contain a shred of truth. That September dossier contained mainly nonsense: made-up facts and half-truths. There is no doubt today that some 70 British troops, and countless Iraqis, have been killed on the basis of a falsehood. Here are the words used last week by the Senate intelligence committee on the CIA’s assessment of Iraq’s military capability before the Iraq war: ‘the greatest intelligence failing in the history of the nation’. The same applies in Britain.
Hence the grave importance of the Butler committee. It was asked to explain the catastrophe. This meant making one vital, but at bottom very simple, judgment. Butler had to decide whether the politicians had misrepresented the material they received, or whether it was the intelligence community that had made a terrible mistake.
When Lord Butler was Cabinet secretary he cleared Jonathan Aitken and Neil Hamilton of wrongdoing. This time, too, he has cleared the politicians. There were one or two minor, though well-merited, criticisms of Tony Blair’s intimate and unstructured method of government. The Prime Minister finds himself at the receiving end of a hint of a rebuke for not warning forcefully enough of the inherent uncertainty of intelligence material. But Downing Street is acquitted by Lord Butler — just as it was by Lord Hutton — of falsifying or distorting the intelligence.
By contrast, the report is damning about the brave, silent men and women who work for the Secret Intelligence Service. The career of Sir Richard Dearlove, who steps down as ‘C’ at the end of this month, ends in ignominy. The SIS is criticised for relying on second- or third-hand sources, failing in some cases to understand Iraq, and simply getting things wrong. The SIS will not publicly complain.
There are scathing passages about the Joint Intelligence Committee, which assessed the intelligence and published the infamous dossier. Butler uses comparatively strong language to condemn the JIC’s failure to warn the wider British public of the speculative nature of its material. His section on the crucial 45-minute claim, which created so many newspaper headlines, is devastating. He shows how the very cautious and conditional raw intelligence judgments were hardened up to categorical by the JIC in its infamous dossier.
Butler rightly criticises the JIC. Unaccountably, however, he fails to comment on the fact that Alastair Campbell, acting on behalf of the Prime Minister, demanded that the JIC chairman John Scarlett tighten the language. Incredibly, there is no comment of any kind by Butler on the extensive email traffic between Downing Street and John Scarlett before the publication of the dossier. Most amazing of all, Alastair Campbell was not even called to give evidence before the committee. It is hard to understand how Butler can have drafted paragraph 310 of his report, in which he dismisses ‘allegations that the intelligence in the September dossier had knowingly been embellished’, without talking at length to the Prime Minister’s former communications director.
A clean bill of health for Downing Street means humiliation for John Scarlett. But Butler, having itemised the JIC failures, then breezily demands that Scarlett be allowed to take up his new job as head of secret intelligence, to which he was impertinently appointed by Tony Blair six weeks ago. Scarlett was at the heart of the chummy Downing Street sofa culture which, Butler accepts, helped the scandal to occur. Two former chairmen of the Joint Intelligence Committee have sharply criticised Scarlett’s method of doing business. He had — as Tony Blair was so keen to point out at the time — ‘ownership’ of the mendacious dossier. In the United States George Tenet bore the responsibility for his serious intelligence errors, and has resigned from the CIA. In Britain we do things differently. The man at the heart of the greatest failure of intelligence-processing in modern history has been promoted.
This Butler report means redemption for Tony Blair. Parliament rises next week and a well-deserved holiday, reportedly in Cliff Richard’s Barbados mansion, is just round the corner. Things are better now for the Prime Minister than at any time since the immediate aftermath of the 2001 election. Nothing and nobody can stop him leading his party to the next general election, if that is what he wants to do. The polls suggest that nothing should prevent him winning it, most likely by a three-figure majority. Few notice, perhaps fewer care, that we live in a topsy-turvy world where good is bad, right is wrong, and truth has become falsehood.