Alex Massie

Does Boris Johnson really want to see Tony Blair tried for war crimes?

Does Boris Johnson really want to see Tony Blair tried for war crimes?
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What are we supposed to make of Boris Johnson? I mean, are we supposed to pay attention to what Boris actually says? Or is he permitted to play the game of politics by different rules? That is, the sort of stuff that applies to other politicians does not apply to Boris because the Mayor of London is a great entertainer and thus granted some kind of relief from the usual rules of responsibility.

Just asking, you know. Consider his recent remarks about Tony Blair and the Iraq War. During an appearance on LBC last week, the Mayor appeared to endorse the fashionable daft idea that Mr Blair should be tried as a War Criminal. At the very least, Boris suggested, this is what Blair deserves.

According to Boris:

"There will be plenty of arguments you can make about bringing all kinds of people to justice. [...] I happen to think that in the case of Tony Blair, it will be quite difficult to secure a conviction. He is a very eel like customer. I think it would be very unlikely that you’d get him.

[...] He can be, you know, he’s a very, very adept and agile lawyer and I think that … our caller who thought that he was going to be imprisoned for what he did in Iraq, his heart is in the right place."

Really? Now you may object that this was an off-the-cuff response on a radio phone-in programme and not, therefore, to be considered evidence of Boris's own considered position. Perhaps. Then again, it might actually be what Boris really thinks, not least because a) it's what he said and b) he had no time to prepare his remarks or consider how they might be received.

So does Boris think Blair should be tried? We have to presume that, yes, he does. His objection to the notion is not based on principle, but on the sense that, somehow, Blair would find a way to wriggle free of his predicament and escape justice [sic]. If, presumably, there were a better chance of securing a conviction Boris would be shouting Go for it, boys. 

Which is interesting, not least because Boris voted in favour of the war too. As, of course, did a majority of MPs. They did so for any number of reasons though few did so with relish or without some reservations. Boris himself now argues that he never believed all that "nonsense" about Saddam Hussein's weapons stockpiles.

Which, actually, is a reasonable position and one shared, to one degree or another, by many of the war's supporters. That is, the case for removing Saddam Hussein was not exclusively dependent upon proving he remained a threat to his neighbours or, indeed, to the Iraqi people. His presumed WMD capability - a presumption shared even by states that came to oppose the war - was a part of that but far from the only consideration.

If Blair erred - and just perhaps he did! - it was in making this the central plank of the UK government's case for removing Saddam. It should, and not just in hindsight, have been an assisting beam, not the principal one holding up the case for military intervention.

Still, this isn't quite what Boris is complaining about. Rather, a) Boris did not believe the government's arguments for the war, b) he voted for it anyway and c) he now complains he was hoodwinked. I can see how you might think two of these things could simultaneously be true; it is rather more difficult to create an acceptable scenario in which all three satisfy some serious burden of truth.

Or, as he puts it:

"Somebody like me, who basically had good faith about what the British government was telling us, thought there must be a plan to deal with the aftermath in Iraq."

"I just could not believe it as things unfolded in the way that they did. I feel guilty because I voted for the wretched thing … I would like to understand more deeply on what basis a prime minister who, at that time, commanded so much trust, was able to persuade parliament and the country and me to go for war in Iraq with absolutely catastrophic consequences."

The grotesque blunder lay less in the absence of post-war planning but the extent to which plans that had been prepared were thrown into the bin by the Pentagon's most senior officials. Those plans might not have been enough to stave-off disaster - and there was plenty of disaster right enough - but it is hard to see how they could have been very much worse than what happened.

Even so, there is no mystery about the basis upon which Blair (and others) persuaded parliament - and the country* - to back the war. None at all. It was laid out, in considerable depth and detail, at both the United Nations and the Palace of Westminster. It even featured, from time to time, on the television news and in the pages of most of our newspapers.

There were many reasons to favour action and, like Boris, I did not think the WMD argument was the most persuasive one. Regime change was enough of a justification on its own. I am afraid I bought the stuff about remaking the middle east too.

That proved optimistic. Naively so, it now seems. Desperately so, too.

Be that as it may, there is something rancid about pretending Blair's case for action was not made in good faith** and following his government's interpretation of the national interest. That seems a poor basis for a prosecution.

That so many pre-war assumptions proved mistaken - calamitously so in many respects - does not actually prove that those assumptions were based on a deliberate lie at the time they were made. Nor does endlessly chanting Blair lied, people died make any case against the former Prime Minister any stronger.

Boris is supposed to be a straight-talking, you-may-not-agree-but-you-can-respect-my-views kind of politician. But, actually, he's just as happy to trim and pander as anyone else. Which is fine but a reminder that there's some gap between the idea of Boris and the reality of Boris.

*Everyone was always against it now. But they weren't in 2003 when the public was divided and, no matter what poll you produce, a good chunk of the population backed invading Iraq.

**It requires one to believe Blair knew Iraq would be a disaster and decided to press ahead anyway. For the giggles, you know. This is preposterous.