Sir John Chilcot isn’t a man who deals in pithy quotes. His Iraq War inquiry report came in at two-and-a-half million words, and even the executive summary was 150 pages long. Yet Chilcot's assessment of Tony Blair during his select committee appearance this afternoon was about as damning as he could manage. Asked whether the former PM had damaged trust in politics, Chilcot had this to say:
‘I think when a government or the leader of a government presents a case with all the powers of advocacy that he or she can command, and in doing so goes beyond what the facts of the case and the basic analysis of that can support, then it does damage politics, yes.’
Chilcot went on to say that he ‘can only imagine’ it would take some time for this trust to be restored. The idea that Blair has dented faith in politics might seem like a moot point: ‘Of course, he has’, many will say. It’s also true that, in his report which was finally released in July, Chilcot has already said that Blair overstated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and that the option to invade Iraq wasn’t the ‘last resort’ it was made out to be at the time.
Yet the suggestion of damage to the public’s trust in politics which Chilcot made today was a new observation. It’s hardly revelatory, but in the absence of anything more damning, it’s about as good a soundbite as Chilcot is going to offer on the subject.
Chilcot also offered up an interesting observation on Blair’s influence and power and how this affected the ability of those around him to stand up to the Prime Minister. Chilcot said that, at the time of the Iraq war, Blair ’had achieved a personal and political dominance which was, in a sense, overriding collective cabinet responsibility’. Again, this isn’t a verdict that will shock many. It was clear that Blair’s grip on power in the run-up to the 2003 invasion was firm, and that this gave him an unprecedented amount of authority. But it’s still a sharp insight into the way in which power structures and accountability at the heart of government appeared to break down as a result of Labour’s crushing electoral victories under Blair.
Today’s hearing wasn’t only about bashing Blair, though. Chilcot was asked on what issues he absolves Blair of blame on. Here was his answer:
‘I absolve him from a personal and demonstrable decision to deceive parliament and the public to state falsehoods, knowing them to be false. That I think he should be absolved from.’
So Chilcot made it clear (as he did in his report) that Blair didn’t lie and that he didn’t set out to deceive Parliament. This will displease many, but, like it or not, it’s hard to dispute the assessment of a man who has presided over such a lengthy and apparently comprehensive inquiry into what went wrong. Chilcot did, though, make room for a point on which he wouldn’t absolve Blair of blame for. He told the hearing today that Blair:
‘…also exercised his very considerable powers of advocacy and persuasion rather than laying the real issues and the information to back the analysis of them, fairly and squarely in front of parliament or indeed the public. It was an exercise in advocacy, not an exercise in sharing crucial judgement.’
This ‘powers of advocacy’ phrase was one that Chilcot repeated at least twice in today’s hearing in relation to Blair. The suggestion is clear: the focus for Blair was in making his argument for war persuasive in delivery, rather than backed up by more helpful analysis. Again, that might not be an assessment of Blair’s time in Downing Street that will shock many.