Early reactions to Blair at Chilcot

For days, columnists have been positing their own questions for Blair to answer about the invasion of Iraq. Today, for six hours, the five members of the Chilcot Inquiry have been asking the ones Blair actually has to answer.

For the latest events, see our Westminster team’s live blog. On this blog we will be summing up the reaction, which, unsurprisingly, started hitting newspaper websites and other blogs almost as soon as Blair sat down.

Anthony Seldon, Blair’s biographer, set the stage well for today’s drama in this morning’s Times, in which he argued Iraq was “this country’s Watergate”. There has been a tendency for observers to be cynical about Blair’s appearance today, saying that nothing new will be learned. But Seldon makes the valid point that it is an important moment in British political history, if nothing else. “We have never seen a day like this in British history, with a former Prime Minister being publicly questioned about such a contentious policy,” he writes.

But has it turned out to be more than just a symbolically important occasion, and has it told us something new?

The early views of the Guardian’s comment panel are mixed.

Jackie Ashley claims Blair has shown his own sincere belief that the war was right, which she argues, proves, “Tony Blair was not George Bush’s poodle.” I’m less sure though: sounding sincere was always one of the man’s great talents, even when giving completely contradictory answers (this has happened on the most innocuous of subjects, like his favourite food). 

Meanwhile, Ashley’s colleagues Martin Kettle and Jonathan Freedland appear less convinced that anything significant has come up during the testimony. Freedland argues that there has been no “Frost/Nixon moment” (clearly what Seldon was hoping for), while Kettle says: ” There haven’t been many surprises this morning and I wouldn’t expect many this afternoon.”

George Pitcher at The Telegraph takes a different view however. He argues Blair has dropped the “Messiah complex” and instead has become a hard-bitten Machiavell, more Pontius Pilate than Jesus Christ. In fact, he comes to the very opposite conclusion to that of Jackie Ashley, arguing: “Washington is his Rome and he must do right by it.”

Over at The Times, David Aaronovitch is doing a sterling job of responding to readers’ questions as the inquiry happens. He’s also doing a sterling job of defending Blair, but he admits his reasons for supporting the war are not the same as Blair’s (which to me have only become more confused by today’s events, but more of that later).  Aaronovitch argues: “My own view was that SH [Saddam Hussein] was a permanent blot on the world landscape, perpetually dangerous, intermittently genocidal, and that it was criminal that we (and many other countries) encouraged him in the 80s. But that’s not Blair’s argument.”

But the grand and competing narratives of how Britain went to war are unlikely to change today. What is more interesting is the small details, the little surprises behind the polished, practised exterior. One of those is picked up by Left Foot Forward, the leftwing blog, where Marcus Roberts makes the excellent point that Blair’s explanation of Iraq as a war that prevented a future threat is importantly and legally different to Iraq as a pre-emptive war to defend British national interests.

At another intriguing moment, Blair appears to admit he slipped up during the Fern Britton interview, and tries to row back from what he said then, that had he known there were no WMD he would have “had to use different arguments about the nature of the threat”. He knows that the natural conclusion of his words to Britton – that he had made his mind up to go to war regardless of whether there were WMD – is highly damaging to his argument that he was not led into war by the Americans. But his words left me feeling more unsure of his real motives than before, not less.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Blair has called several times today for tougher measures on Iran. Perhaps if he was still PM, we would be less concerned with the build-up to the previous war in Iraq and much more concerned about a current one to a war in Iran.

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Christopher Cook is an FT editorial writer. Before joining the FT in 2008 as a Peter Martin Fellow, he worked for three years for the Conservative party.

Lorien Kite is deputy comment editor, a post he took up in 2009 after four years as a commissioning editor on the analysis page. He joined the FT in 2000.

Ian Holdsworth became assistant features editor in 2009 and was previously chief production journalist for the features pages.