Next month a group of British MPs will launch impeachment proceedings against Tony Blair. This is a very dramatic and powerful act, rooted deep in British history. Though once a commonplace sanction against abuse of power by the executive, the instrument of impeachment has not been used since 1848, when it was alleged that Lord Palmerston, while foreign minister, had entered into a secret treaty with Russia.
Nevertheless, impeachment remains part of parliamentary law, a recourse for desperate times. Many MPs feel certain that the moment critique has now arrived. They remain in a state of despair at the way the Prime Minister systematically misled the House of Commons and the British people over the Iraq war. For several weeks a powerful draft document — provisionally entitled ‘A Case to Answer: A Report on the Possibility of the Impeachment of the British Prime Minister Tony Blair for High Crimes and Misdemeanours in relation to the Invasion of Iraq’ — setting out the charges, has been in private circulation. It is powerful and compelling, and will soon be published. It sets out with great clarity the numerous falsehoods and misrepresentations made by Tony Blair, both to the British people and within the House of Commons.
It has only been possible to write this document since the publication of the Butler report in July. Though Butler’s conclusions were insipid and in one or two cases contradicted the evidence he himself presented, his report has nevertheless brought a great many fresh intelligence documents into the public arena. When these documents are compared with contemporaneous statements made by the Prime Minister, the audacious scale of the deception perpetrated against Parliament and the British people becomes very clear.
Tony Blair was not merely wrong about Iraqi WMD in retrospect. Thanks to Butler, it is now possible to show that his statements clashed with the state of knowledge within the intelligence community at the time. It is possible to demonstrate that the Prime Minister was guilty of at best a culpably negligent failure to acquaint himself with the true state of affairs, at worse mendacity and bad faith. Tony Blair at no stage gave the British people the chance to make up their minds ahead of the war, because the relevant evidence was manipulated and in some cases suppressed.
The Prime Minister made numerous assertions about weapons of mass destruction that were contradicted by his intelligence assessments. On 3 April 2002 he made the following confident assertion to NBC news: ‘We know that he [Saddam Hussein] has stockpiles of major amounts of chemical and biological weapons.’ Compare this (and numerous other pronouncements of equal certainty made by Tony Blair around the same time) with what the Prime Minister was being told by the Joint Intelligence Committee. Its assessment of 15 March 2002, brought to light by Butler, stated that ‘intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction is sporadic and patchy ...from the evidence available to us, we believe Iraq retains some production equipment, and some small stocks of chemical warfare agent precursors, and may have hidden small quantities of agents and weapons.’ The discrepancy between the Prime Minister’s version of events (‘we know he has stockpiles of major amounts of chemical and biological weapons’) and the JIC’s cautious view that Iraq ‘may have hidden small quantities of [chemical] agents and weapons’ beggars belief.
There was a similar massive discrepancy between Tony Blair’s apocalyptic claims about the threat posed by Iraq in the wider Middle East, and the sober guidance he was receiving from the intelligence services. The resolution before the House of Commons on 18 March 2003, supporting the war on Iraq, read as follows: ‘This house recognises that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles, and its continuing non-compliance with Security Council Resolutions, pose a threat to international peace and security.’
Today we can see that this statement was nonsense, and in no way calibrated with the intelligence available to the Prime Minister. Two conditions needed to be in place for Tony Blair’s claim about Iraq’s ‘severe threat to the wider world’ to be even faintly plausible: namely, evidence that Iraq possessed the necessary weapons along with the accompanying delivery capability, and some proof that Saddam Hussein intended to use them on his neighbours. The Butler report demonstrates that both propositions were tested, and found wanting, by the intelligence services. In sharp contrast to the Prime Minister’s statement to the Commons, intelligence assessments during 2002–3 make no reference to any Iraqi intention to employ WMD outside its borders. The only situation in which British experts envisaged Saddam making use of these weapons, supposing they existed in the first place, was if he himself was attacked. Lord Butler quotes one piece of interdepartmental advice to ministers, drawing heavily on JIC assessments, which makes this view quite explicit: ‘Saddam has not succeeded in seriously threatening his neighbours ...Saddam has used WMD in the past and could do so again if his regime was under threat.’
This remained the JIC view right up to the eve of publication of the notorious dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction of September 2002. So overwhelming was this conclusion that Jonathan Powell, the Downing Street chief of staff, emailed JIC chairman John Scarlett that ‘we will need to make it clear in launching the document that we do not claim that we have evidence that he [Saddam] is an imminent threat.’ This piece of advice was ignored, and the final version of the dossier gave no indication of any kind that Tony Blair’s lurid assertions about the looming menace of Saddam Hussein was unsupported by evidence.
There is no space here to do more than summarise the numerous other false assertions and mendacious claims made by the Prime Minister over Iraq. Downing Street asserted that the UN inspectors ‘proved’ that illicit weapons existed inside Iraq. Actually they merely said that the materials were unaccounted for; the distinction was clearly made in intelligence reports but not by the Prime Minister to Parliament. Tony Blair told the House of Commons on 24 September 2002 that Saddam’s WMD programme was ‘active, detailed and growing’, in flat contradiction to intelligence assessments showing that programmes had been frozen or ‘hindered’. He claimed that material found in Iraq after April 2003 was part of a covert weapons programme, despite lack of intelligence to support these claims.
The greatest deception of all relates to the way that Tony Blair presented intelligence material. On 24 September 2002, while presenting his Iraq dossier to the Commons, he told MPs, ‘I am aware, of course, that people are going to have to take elements of this on the good faith of the intelligence services. But this is what they are telling me, the British Prime Minister, and my senior colleagues. The intelligence picture they paint is ...extensive, detailed and authoritative.’ In fact, as the Butler inquiry demonstrated with great clarity, the Prime Minister was in a position to know that this statement was false: over four fifths of the intelligence about Iraqi deception and concealment came from just two sources, both of which have since been recognised as dodgy. Furthermore, the Prime Minister was aware of this shameful paucity of material. As Butler records, ‘the Chief of SIS had a meeting with the Prime Minister on 12 September to brief him on SIS operations in respect of Iraq. At the meeting he briefed the Prime Minister on each of the SIS’s main sources.’ As Butler himself remarked, in a rare moment of criticism: ‘We were struck by the relative thinness of the intelligence base supporting the greater firmness of the JIC’s judgments on Iraqi production and possession of chemical and biological weapons.’
There is no graver charge that could be laid against a serving Prime Minister than that he misled the British people on the eve of conflict. The impeachment document, written by Dan Plesch and Glen Rangwala for Adam Price, the Plaid Cymru MP, makes a potent case with great intellectual clarity. It charges that the Prime Minister was forced to resort to such a flimsy and fallacious justification for war because he had already entered into what amounted to an arrangement with President George Bush to invade Iraq well before Parliament voted for war in March 2003. The document cites the powerful testimony of Clare Short, Chris Meyer and the author Bob Woodward in this regard. The allegation of a secret treaty is hard to prove; nevertheless these three individuals could be called to give evidence as to whether Tony Blair entered into a private agreement to take Britain to war. This, along with deceiving the Commons, is an impeachable offence.
The trouble is that none of the currently used mechanisms of Parliament has proved capable of holding the Prime Minister to account. Indeed MPs are unable to make even the allegation that Tony Blair has lied for fear of being rebuked for using unparliamentary language. When the MP John Baron claimed during the Butler debate last July that the country was ‘misled by the Prime Minister’ over the 45-minute claim, he was cautioned by the Speaker.
So MPs have been banned from making the fundamental case against Tony Blair over his conduct of the war. The effect of this convention has been crippling: the Prime Minister has not been judged even by the fairly lax standards he applies to his own ministers. Last winter the Home Office minister Beverley Hughes resigned her portfolio following charges that she lied to MPs. Hughes told the Commons that she accepted that she ‘may have given a misleading impression’ to MPs over immigration controls. That, for her, was grounds to leave office. By any criteria the case against Tony Blair is far stronger than the case against Hughes, and the issue — a war in which tens of thousands have died — of infinitely greater importance. Yet the Speaker bans discussion of the Prime Minister’s integrity on the floor of the Commons.
By contrast it will be hard for Speaker Michael Martin to resist debate on an impeachment motion. It is true that in Britain we think of impeachment as part of the American, rather than the British, constitution. But the United States inherited the practice from this country, where for many centuries it was used as the ultimate response to attempts to subvert the structure of government or undermine the integrity of office. Far from being archaic, impeachment remains soundly based in British law. William Holdsworth, whose work is still used to train British lawyers, concluded his analysis of impeachment with an urgent call for its revival, stating that it ‘does embody the sound principle that ministers and officials should be made criminally liable for corruption, gross negligence, or other malfeasances in the conduct of the affairs of the nation. And this principle requires to be emphasised at a time when the development of the system of party government pledges the party to defend the policy of its leaders, however mistaken it may be, and however incompetently it may have been carried out; at a time when party leaders are apt to look indulgently on the most disastrous mistakes because they hope that the same indulgence will be extended to them when they take office; at a time when the principle of the security of the tenure of higher permanent officials is held to be more important than the need to punish their negligences and ignorances. If ministers were sometimes made criminally responsible for gross negligence or rashness, ill-considered activities might be discouraged, real statesmanship might be encouraged and party violence might be moderated.’
Holdsworth could not have described more lucidly the case for impeaching Tony Blair over the Iraq war.