Sunday 23 October 2016

Chilcot, the damning dossier that means Blair will never wash out the stain of the Iraq War

Andrew Grice

Published 07/07/2016 | 02:30

Tony Blair meeting troops in the port of Umm Qasr, Iraq in 2003 Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Tony Blair meeting troops in the port of Umm Qasr, Iraq in 2003 Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

When you ask Labour MPs how the party travelled from Tony Blair to Jeremy Corbyn in just eight years, many reply with just one word: "Iraq". The view runs through the party, from ardent Blairites to ultra-loyal Corbynistas.

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The Iraq War has cast a long shadow over Labour. It prevented Blair securing a bigger majority than the 66-seat one he won in 2005, down from 167 at the previous election. That deprived Gordon Brown of a bigger cushion that might have saved him when he fought his only general election as prime minister in 2010, and lost.

The explosion over Iraq among Labour members was delayed, but always bound to happen. Behind the scenes, Ed Miliband devoted enormous amounts of energy to keeping the party united. But when he stood down as leader last year, the fuse was lit. Members who had quit, many over Iraq, returned to vote for Corbyn in the leadership election. Many of those who had remained seized their chance to bury New Labour. Although there were other concerns - such as being Tory-lite on the economy - Iraq was a symbol of everything they disliked. The result: a derisory 4.5pc of the vote for the Blairite Liz Kendall, and an incredible 59.5pc for Corbyn, then chair of the Stop the War Coalition and a campaigner against the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

So will the publication of the Chilcot inquiry finally lift the shadow from Blair and his party? It is unlikely to do so, given the stronger-than-expected criticism of Blair from John Chilcot in his report. It is not the establishment whitewash Blair's critics feared.

In his summarising statement, Chilcot levelled severe criticisms at the former prime minister on a long list of topics: that the UK chose to join the invasion before the peaceful options for disarmament by Iraq had been exhausted; the absence of proper cabinet government; the unjustified presentation of evidence claiming Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction; the failure to challenge "flawed intelligence"; the lack of planning for the aftermath of the invasion; the fact warnings were ignored about its likely impact, including the threat to the UK from al-Qaeda, internal strife in Iraq and regional instability and, crucially, saying that the UK-US relationship does "not require unconditional support where our interests or judgements differ".

The findings are worse for Blair than his allies were hoping. The report will not dilute the anger still felt towards him by many in his party, as well as outside it. Thinking back to conversations I had at the time, a huge part of the New Labour project was about not being Old Labour. For Blair, who defined himself against his party, that meant changing the perception that Labour was weak on defence. It was also about ending anti-Americanism and showing Labour could work with a Republican President in George W Bush, to deny the Conservatives any opening. Blair remembered well the humiliatingly brief White House meeting accorded to Neil Kinnock by Ronald Reagan in 1987; Blair went to the other end of the spectrum. It was also about Blair's charm offensive with the media in general, and Rupert Murdoch in particular.

Blair allies say that, on Iraq, he did not have the option of stopping a war as he knew Bush was going to invade at some point. The question was whether to support it. So he gently pushed Bush down the UN route and, when that failed to produce a second resolution, the above factors came into play. Realising the scale of opposition among Labour MPs, Bush told Blair at the last minute: "I'll let you out of it". But Blair decided to be there. He told Bush on the eve of war: "Well, it might be my epitaph." Bush laughed. Blair was not joking.

In a declassified memo published by the Chilcot inquiry, Blair told Bush: "I will be with you, whatever." That says it all in just six words.

Whisper it softly, but Blair wants to be loved, or at least treated with more respect than he has been since leaving office in 2007. Chilcot's critical verdict will not help him achieve that ambition. Blair allies had hoped the report would finally draw a line under the conflict and that the achievements of the New Labour years would forge a much better legacy for the man who won three general elections.

Apart from Iraq, there is a good story to tell: the minimum wage; investment in public services; tax credits to boost the incomes of the low paid; civil partnerships; abolition of Section 28, which banned councils from promoting homosexuality; the Good Friday Agreement and devolution for Scotland and Wales.

Blair offered strong leadership, a centrist government, a positive approach to Europe and influence in the world. David Cameron tried to copy it, styling himself as the "heir to Blair", but destroyed his career by calling an unnecessary EU referendum. As a result, Cameron will forever be known the man who took the UK out of Europe. Some labels are so sticky that politicians can never throw them off: Ed Miliband knifed his brother David; Michael Gove assassinated Boris Johnson. And the Blair legacy will continue to be summed up in one word: "Iraq".

Independent News Service

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