Good morning. The Westminster team is reporting live on former prime minister Tony Blair’s appearance at the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war.
12.30: We are now taking another coffee break. Alex will be your host when delivery returns in about 10 minutes’ time. You’ll need to go back to ft.com/westminster and open a new window – ie Iraq inquiry part two.
In the meantime here are some quotes from this morning’s inquiry which will no doubt make the news later.
* Blair told his chief of staff a year before the war with Iraq that the UK “should be gung-ho on Saddam”.
* “Up to September 11, we had been managing this issue. After September 11, we decided we had to confront and change.”
* “There are people who say that extremism can be managed. I personally don’t think that’s true.”
* On his Iraq policy in 2002: “I wasn’t keeping my options open. I was setting out a policy that was very very clear.”
* He said the cabinet was aware of his policy: “Go down UN route, get an ultimatum. If he fails to take the ultimatum, we’re going to be with America on military action.”
* “We were probably the most successful centre left government in the world.”
* “I was raising issues to do with Somalia…the Middle East peace process…Lebanon. My view was that this was all part of one issue, in the end. You couldn’t deal with it sequentially.”
* The nature of Saddam’s regime in Iraq was not a justification for going to war – “but it is why we should be proud to have got rid of him”.
* “I didn’t see September 11 as an attack on America, I saw it as an attack on us – the West. I told George Bush – ‘Whatever the political heat, if I think this is the right thing to do, I’m going to be with you.’”
* “When the military pressure was off, he was going to be back, and with far more money. If we had left Saddam there, I think it’s arguable he might have been developing in competition with Iran.”
12.25: Blair has argued that he wanted to get a majority of the UN security council, even if he could not get unanimous support. Sir Lawrence Freedman asked if Blair stopped the UN weapons inspection process just at the crucial point when it was starting to reap dividends. Blair sidesteps the question, saying Saddam was “back to his old games”. Freedman ponders whether a few more weeks may have made a difference?
Blair says Saddam may have made a few more concessions but his overall stance would not have changed – it was still a mistake to leave the dictator in place, he insists.
12.19: Here is how the international press is covering today’s inquiry. I suspect from a global perspective it is – dare I say it – still more interesting than the resignation of Cameron’s press aide.
Tim Marshall at Sky wonders whether the questions are simply not drilling deeply enough into what Blair is saying. My view is that Blair counters specific questions of detail with widescreen, sweeping replies about the general threat of Saddam to world peace etc – which don’t necessarily give the specific answer which was sought.
12.15: We have been going for nearly three hours and the inquisition has failed to make any severe dent on Mr Blair. This is despite some rather striking memos emerging this morning – which you can read further down this blog, highlighted in red. The most damaging, in my view, is the one from Jonathan Powell saying that Saddam’s WMD threat had not worsened at all in the previous three years.
Alex meanwhile says:
There is a lot of debate over whether the military deadline (mid March) could be delayed in order to permit some more diplomacy and a longer deadline for Saddam. Again SIS4 does a fantastic job of summing up the problems of fighting wars in the Middle East in April and May: “My understanding at that time was that the tyres on the aeroplanes couldn’t cope with the metallic runways of the aircraft carriers once
the heat warmed up, that any question of bio or chemical kit was going to be even more difficult once the heat built up.
“And in the Middle East it’s as though God jogs the lever of the weather. The days that you get in April can be hotter and feel hotter than anything you get later. Of course that is technically true, but
coming out of the winter, you suddenly get these shocks of heat, as you get into the summer, which are really debilitating. I knew all about that sort of thing. The idea that we could stay on clutch control until May, was fanciful.”
12.10: Alex says:
Blair is insisting that the French would veto anything with an
ultimatum – a position that does not tally with several of his advisers who have given evidence to the inquiry. Here’s what his former UN ambassador had to say about it:
SIR RODERIC LYNE: Yes. You reported on 13 March that Annan had told you that he had talked to Chirac on 12 March and found him tough but not closed to possible compromises. But the problem was the American
SIR JEREMY GREENSTOCK: The Americans were closed to compromise.
SIR RODERIC LYNE: Yes, but we laid all the blame on the French.
SIR JEREMY GREENSTOCK: That’s the politics of it. It won the prime minister a few votes in the House of Commons.
12.00: Blair said he did try to persuade Bush to allow time for a second resolution; but whether it was one week or nine, it would be pointless without an ultimatum. Similarly, he says that there could have been a third or fourth resolution – as the French argued for – but again this was useless without the ultimatum.
11.49: Blair is trying to argue that, if Saddam Hussein had been left in place, he would now be trying to develop nuclear weapons – in a similar way to Iran. Of course this is a hypothetical inside a possible inside a maybe.
11.47: Again from Alex:
As we go round and round on the issue of WMD and inspections and
whether it was a sufficient trigger for war, again SIS4 has a
brilliant take on the arguments:”So, in that sense, the vehicle of WMD as an argument for the war was
incapable of sustaining the weight put upon it, given that we didn’t
have all the answers and we didn’t have the sources.”
Given he was our most senior spook in charge of the Middle East, it is
quite a damning assessment.
11.38: Blair is recalling conversations with Hans Blix, chief weapons inspector, on Feb 6, 2003. To be honest the discussion is starting to wander a bit. Peter Oborne at the Telegraph suggests that Blair has only faced a “series of slow half-volleys” which have been easy to deal with.
Alex provides this aside:
Here’s another piece of insight from our favourite philosopher spy, SIS4: “I was reading only a couple of weeks ago an account of very early Mesopotamian civilisation, and the writer said “civilisation is a
matter of diffusion, but of ideas rather than models”. I liked that. I thought it was a wonderful way of summing it up because it was what I already believed. The idea that Iraqi Shias could be fitted out with Republican, Democrat, Lib Dem identities, organisations and run the difficult place which is Iraq, a place which has never had stable political geography, wouldn’t have occurred to me in 2001.”
And, again: Blair was incredibly frustrated by Blix. But SIS4 was a big fan of the weapons inspector. Here’s another top quote from his transcript:
“Blix was Swedish, a lawyer, international lawyer, a distinguished
person, and a very complex person. He wasn’t going to tapdance
because somebody in Number 10 was in a hurry.”
11.34: Apparently the journalists at the inquiry have been rather distracted by the Andy Coulson news; will he step down, permanently or temporarily? Or does his “personal statement” later today involve something else? It’s been a busy 24 hours for political news, what with the Alan Johnson resignation last night.
Surely the coalition didn’t think today would be a good day to bury bad news? (Incidentally I’ve a £10 bet with Tom Watson, Labour MP, who predicted that Coulson would be gone by January 24. I’ve a feeling my tenner is not safe). A Downing Street spokeswoman was just asked if David Cameron had confidence in Coulson. The reply was that the prime minister “has had” confidence in him.
11.32: It’s worth going back to the Goldsmith question – ie why didn’t Blair warn Bush that he had an issue with the legality. As Alex says:
We’ve have a lot of questions about whether Blair should have told Bush on January 31 that his main legal adviser had said a war without a second resolution would be illegal. Blair said that he was unwilling to confess to any problems over the law unless it was absolutely necessary and Britain had to step aside. But surely, in private, this was an incredibly important point to make to the US president. Blair said it would have been a “political catastrophe” to show a chink of light between him and the White House in public. But Rod Lynne followed up with the valid point that it could have been raised in private. What is shows is Blair’s absolute confidence in his ability to win the argument with Goldsmith on the interpretation of the resolutions. It is quite breathtaking.
11.28: Another striking quote from one of the fresh memos, which almost uses the dreaded phrase “regime change”. From Alex:
There is another phrase in Blair’s note to Jonathan Powell from March 2002 that makes uncomfortable reading for Blair. “But in fact a political philosophy that does care about other nations — eg Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone — and is prepared to change regimes on the merits, should be gung-ho on Saddam.”
11.26: Meanwhile I’m told Andy Coulson is making a “personal statement” later today. One can only ponder wildly about what this might involve. Sorry, I will try to focus on the Chilcot Inquiry but thought you might appreciate this breaking news.
11.24: Blair admits that if he’d admitted any “chink” in the UK position in January/February 2003 would have been a disastrous; but it is pointed out that he could have told GWB in private.
The former PM is now claiming that it might have been okay to have stopped at resolution 1441. As Alex explains:
Fascinating that Blair has suggested it may have been better to have just “camped out” on the first resolution and not bothered with even attempting to secure a second resolution to endorse the war. He clearly thought the legal argument relying on resolution 1441 would have been more clear. This was in line with American thinking at the time. But I expect it would have triggered an almighty uprising on the Labour benches.
11.22: An intermission: This isn’t related, although it applies to another major New Labour figure. I’m told that Lazard will announce later today that it has hired Lord Mandelson to be a “senior adviser”, as predicted by Guido a few days ago. I’m told that Nat Rothschild – friend of Mandy and former Lazard banker – was not involved in the appointment.
11.18: Blair is being pressed over whether he should have told Bush that he’d had legal advice to get a further resolution. But Goldsmith’s position was nuanced and he eventually “moved over the line” to a position where he said it was lawful. Blair did not want to put that problem before the president of the US until “I knew I had to.”
11.12: Ouch. James Blitz, our diplomatic correspondent, has discovered a memo from Jonathan Powell to Blair from March 17, 2002. “The immediate WMD problems don’t seem obviously worse than 3 years ago. So we have to re-order our story and message.” That quote will require some explaining by the former prime minister.
11.11: If you’re wondering what “sunt lacrimae rerum” means, it was said by Aeneas and is often translated as “tears are everywhere” – although there are other interpretations. See, it’s taken 20 years but I knew my Latin GCSE would come in handy eventually.
11.08: Blair says Goldsmith’s position was an “incentive” to get a further UN resolution. “It would have been better if he had been seeing the American lawyers in November 2002,” he remarks.
11.07: Alex shares this amusing transcript:
Rod Lynne earlier referred to an “expert paper” written by a spy whose inquiry codename is SIS4. (As Jim wrote earlier). One of my favourite bits is his response to a question on the Duelfer report, which looked at why no WMD were discovered in Iraq. Bring on the Virgil:
SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: What were your views of the final report of Duelfer’s?
SIS4: “Sunt lacrimae rerum”, really.
SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Would you like to elaborate?
SIS4: I think it says it all.
SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: All right. We will stop there.
THE CHAIRMAN: “Tendebantque manus, ulteriore amore.” Shall we break for ten minutes?
11.06: Chilcot is asking Blair if Goldsmith was discouraged from giving formal advice. “The only concern is generating bits of paper the whole time on it,” says Blair. What exactly does that mean – not wanting a paper trail? Or is he concerned about the environment, perhaps.
11.05: They are back after a quarter-hour coffee break.
10.42: Goldsmith “provisionally” thought the allies needed a further UN resolution, says Blair, who claims the two men worked very closely together – he refers to him as “Peter”, I notice.
10.40: Sir John Chilcot says the panel is still disappointed that the Bush-Blair correspondence cannot be published.
Blair said he “won’t hide” behind the cabinet secretary’s decision on the publication of his letters to Bush. He said he believes they should remain in confidence if sent in confidence, and backed the idea that publishing them would inhibit future prime ministers from being frank. Well, why then did Bush quote from Blair’s letters in his memoirs? And why is it OK to publish hundreds of letters between Thatcher and Reagan? This was an odd decision that was primarily based on Blair’s objection to the letters being public. If they repeat what he said in public, as he claims, why keep them secret?
10.38: Some observations from the commentariat on Twitter:
Sky’s Tim Marshall tweets: Blair ‘s ‘we were probably the most succesful left of centre government in the world’ provokes laughter in media room, although some agree
John Kampfner: Chilcot team right to focus on early stages post 9-11. Need to look at Bush’s state of union Jan 2002 speech which to Blair was real trigger
John Rentoul: There goes another quote for history books: we had to decide after 9/11 whether to be change makers or managers
10.36: Chilcot is quoting a line from Andrew Rawnsley’s latest book where the prime minister supposedly told Bush: “Whatever you decide to do, I’m with you.” Blair points out that Rawnsley – an Observer columnist – was not present at the time.
10.35: It’s worth reminding readers why the Goldsmith note published this week is so controversial. In the paper – written in January 30, 2003 – he warned that the correct legal interpretation of resolution 1441 (the last security council decision on Iraq) was that it did not authorise the use of force without “a further determination by the security council.”
10.31: Blair complaints about the “binary” way that the issue was boiled down to either regime change or WMD, as if the former could not happen without the latter. “The nature of the regime could not justify by itself intervention, it is however the reason we should be proud we got rid of him, that’s the right way of putting it.”
He also admits that Bush was clear ‘from the outset, he was going to change that regime if they didn’t let the inspectors back in’.
This stops rather short of Blair’s apparent confession – in a BBC interview with Fern Britton two years ago – that he would have supported the invasion even if he thought Saddam did not possess weapons of mass destruction. He has since then denied that this was the case.
10.30: Alex writes:
Ouch. Sir Rod Lynne just had a not so subtle dig at Sir Gus O’Donnell’s rules on declassification, which mean they have to quote from a government options paper leaked to the press, rather than the original version…..oh, as I write that, he is having to correct himself. Apparently he has to quote from the original. But it shows you how frustrated they are with his approach to publishing papers, which they obviously see in the public interest. I’m sure we’ll come to the issue of the Bush-Blair letters later in the testimony.
10.28: Blair is asked about a memo to Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff, in the spring of 2002 – a full year before the invasion. He is asked what “it” referred to. Blair admits that ”it” referred to how to deal with Saddam Hussein.
10.24: Here is a reminder of the new evidence from an unnamed MI6 officer (called “SIS4″) who has provided new evidence to the inquiry. SIS4 writes that he had no problem with the intelligence being shown to the Prime Minister. But he continues:
“What I divine to be the direction of questioning is the issue of whether the chief detonated a psychotropic line of thinking and excitement in the prime minister by giving him what in quieter days might be thought rather precipitate briefing on casework which turned out not to be real. I don’t think it’s for me to offer a judgment on that.”
10.22: Blair was asked about a phone conversation from December 3, 2002 – just months before the invasion. It has not yet been declassified. Blair says he can’t remember it and hadn’t prepared an answer – so he’ll have to come back to the committee on that. (He subsequently sent a memo via David Manning, after reading papers from the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS)). However the gist was: “Look, we are going to have to deal with this issue.”
10.20: Krishnan Guru-Murthy says on Twitter:
Does seem slightly odd to ask whether Iraq policy was stress tested. It was constantly stress tested by public, media and politicians
1013: There was an Iraq options paper from the Foreign Office, which pointed out that no link was seen between Iraq and terrorism. Blair says, but it made clear that Iraq was seeking to pursue a nuclear weapons programme and had previously had some WMD – therefore it was not exactly a reassuring paper.
10.11: Meanwhile on Twitter, Paul Waugh remarks:
Very Blair. Asked if Cabinet saw key war options papers: “The cabinet, er, the leading members of the cabinet certainly did”
10.10: Blair says that his cabinet were particularly worried about “the most successful centre-left government in the world” going into alliance with the rightwing US Bush government. Ultimately it was all about dealing with the threat, he says.
A remarkable quote. Blair said he had the right people at the meetings with him. But “no one was saying to me to do it in a different way. If they had I would have listened to them.”
10.04: Sir Roderic says it is still not clear when the cabinet endorsed the decision. Blair says his policies were set out with “crystal clear clarity” and cabinet knew what he was doing.
The former prime minister is wearing a dark blue suit and matching tie with crisp white shirt. His hair is now markedly grey.
He cites the fact that Margaret Thatcher’s war cabinet did not include her Chancellor of the Exchequer. A lot of detailed planning was going on, he insists. This included humanitarian and environmental questions about the post-war situation.
10.00: Tom McKane, a Cabinet Office official, said the government was still pursuing containment as a policy in early 2002. Blair is asked if it was clear that the policy of going to the UN could eventually lead to war?
Blair says this was the issue “the entire time”. He had to remind people that he had not taken a final military decision. Sir Roderic Lyne says the cabinet did not discuss Iraq between April and September 2002. However the policy was changing. Did Mr Blair have cabinet support for what you were doing?
Yes, says Blair. The cabinet wanted to go down the UN route. Sir Roderic asks if ministers understood that this could lead to war? Yes, says Blair. He was saying this publicly, at PMQs and in the media, in a way that cabinet ministers would have understood. He admits there were clear divisions within cabinet over the issue – with Robin Cook, who later resigned, the most clearly opposed.
09.55: Alex points out:
One of the big themes that has emerged from this inquiry is the process of changing policy. The panel are obsessively following the trail of paperwork and the guest list of meetings. Gilbert, for instance, is currently pressing Blair on whether the cabinet actually discussed dropping the policy of containment on Iraq, or indeed saw any of the main papers on it. For past sessions, it seems clear they think the process of fundamentally changing policy was too informal and without necessary rigour. They point out, for instance, that Blair never held a meeting on whether to continue with containment with anyone who actually thought the policy was worth keeping. Similarly they ask a lot of questions about whether there was a meeting before the start of war to “take stock” and make sure it was absolutely in Britain’s strategic interest. Watch out for all this in the final report.
09.51: Worth reminding our readers that the Tory party – including current leader David Cameron – backed the invasion of Iraq at the time. They now argue that they could only make this decision on the basis of information provided by the then Labour government.
Interestingly Blair is sounding rather more ruffled than usual. “The one thing nobody could be in any doubt about is either where I stood on the issue or what the policy of the government was…the ultimatum is that if you don’t do that (Saddam letting the inspectors back in) action will follow.”
09.49: Blair is dismissing the idea that the cabinet was not involved in the build-up to war. “It was a perpetual conversation going on in depth,” he says. Not only did it come up at 20 cabinet meetings but there were constant discussions going on behind the scenes, he says. Blair is asked; why were cabinet ministers not shown a crucial options paper? (It suggested either containment or regime change). His answer is not very convincing – he says that his colleagues were told about the content.
09.47: Blair says it would clear that the UK would stand shoulder to shoulder with the US – but not clear what form that would take.
Alex, who is inside the inquiry, says:
Blair looks pretty relaxed straight from the outset. That is probably
no surprise to most people. But it’s worth remembering how nervy he was at the start of his first appearance before the inquiry. I was in the room and it was impossible to miss his hands shaking. He realised
it and made a quick grab for the water. No sign of such worries this time. But I suspect he may be about to face a far tougher cross-examination. This hearing will be as much about the Chilcot team proving its mettle as Blair restating his case.
09.45: Here are arguably the two key points from Blair’s evidence.
1] He denied offering Bush a “blank cheque” in his private notes which will not be published.
I made it clear also to President Bush that I would be with him in tackling [Saddam's non-compliance with the UN. My statements of support on dealing with Saddam to President Bush and to Secretary Rumsfeld at our meeting in June 2002 were meant and were taken in this way. I could not and did not offer some kind of "blank cheque" in how we accomplished our shared objective ... What I was signalling was that there would be no withdrawal of support for something we thought right and do-able, simply for reasons of political pressure, ie I was going to be steadfast as an ally as I had promised, even though I knew it would also be tough politically. I sent this signal because I believed in the substance and because that meant we would be right alongside US thinking from the outset.
My public pronouncements - especially at Crawford and in Texas in the speech the next day, could have left no one in any doubt as to my position.
2] He says it was reasonable for him to ignore Lord Goldsmith’s advice.
When I received the advice on 30 January – which again was provisional – I did not understand how [Goldsmith] could reach the conclusion that a further decision was required, when expressly we had refused such language in 1441.
09.40: Blair says that after 9/11 the analysis of the terrorist threat had to change. “3,000 died but if they could have killed 300,000 they would have.” He warns once again about the threat from Iran – as he did in his last appearance here.
09.36: Sir Martin Gilbert asks about Blair’s key Commons speech in March 18, 2003. “You drew an analogy with the 1930s, when Czechoslovakia was swallowed up by the Nazis.” That has enormous emotive force with the public, he observes. In Blair’s book he almost removed that reference. Why did he regret saying that?
9.33: We’re off. Sir John Chilcot is beginning his introduction. “There are a number of areas where we need to clarify what happened,” he says. While insisting that it’s all about lessons learnt and forging an accurate account. Issues include: decision to take military action and how it was debated; what happened in Iraq after the invasion; the post-2003 violence. The Blair statement is being published now at the inquiry website. Chilcot says we won’t go over the WMD issue and how that information ended up in the public domain; that is an interesting clarification.
9.25: Five minutes to go before the inquiry starts. Silence over at the Alastair Campbell blog, interestingly. Blair wrote in his memoir that after his last appearance at Chilcot he felt furious: “Angry at being put in a position in an inquiry that was supposed to be about lessons learned, but had inevitably turned into a trial of judgment and even good faith.” Indeed the former prime minister is not on trial, but is rather one of many witnesses at a public inquiry; it is hardly surprising though that the panel – and the public – are particularly interested in his evidence.
9.05: Sir Christopher Meyer has criticised Sir Gus O’Donnell’s decision – which emerged this week – not to publish the memos of conversations between Tony Blair and George Bush over the Iraq war.
Britain’s ambassador in Washington at the time of the Iraq invasion told the Today programme:
“Here we have a committee of privy councillors looking into the genesis and conduct of a war and a once in a century event, in a situation where the prime minister is accused by some of lying, is accused of taking us to war illegally. And here we have correspondence which actually gives I believe the clearest indication of the prime minister’s motives and the nature of his commitments to George Bush.”
Meanwhile there is likely to be lots of attention on the documents provided on Monday by Lord Goldsmith, former attorney-general, whose advice that the war was legal has aroused considerable attention. Goldsmith had expressed doubts about this legality only weeks beforehand.
Sir Menzies Campbell, former Lib Dem leader, told Sky News he expected today’s session would focus on discrepancies between Lord Goldsmith and Tony Blair’s statements.
“The interesting feature of today’s proceedings is the fact that earlier in the week the inquiry released some written questions and answers which it had sent to the previous attorney general in relation to legality and a discrepancy appears to have arisen between what Lord Goldsmith now says and what Tony Blair said at the time and I suspect quite a bit of the questioning will revolve around that.”
“I’m a little surprised the Inquiry hasn’t recalled Lord Goldsmith because questions of credibility arise in relation to a matter of that kind, not to mention questions of legality.”
8.59am: The former prime minister has already arrived at the Chilcot Inquiry at the QE2 Centre in Westminster. Tony Blair walked through the front door this time, amid a tiny knot of demonstrators, dwarfed by the vast expanse of barricades and police security. He is due to start his testimony at 9.30am; it looks set to go on for five hours at least.
This is his second appearance, having first been grilled in late January 1010, almost a year ago. The FT revealed this morning that Mr Blair has been served over 100 detailed questions ahead of the appearance. Today he is likely to be asked to fill in gaps or explain discrepancies identified by the committee.
Alex this morning provided the five key questions for Mr Blair:
●What commitments were given to US president George W. Bush in the build-up to war? Did they go further than Mr Blair’s public statements?
●Why was the attorney-general discouraged from giving legal advice on military action until a late stage? Did Mr Blair properly represent the advice he was given in parliament?
● Did Mr Blair make the grave concerns of UK lawyers clear when agreeing a timeline for war with the White House?
● Did Mr Blair misrepresent to the public the threat posed by Iraq? Was he right to claim the intelligence “established beyond doubt” that Saddam Hussein was producing weapons of mass destruction?
●Why did Mr Blair not act on clear warnings about the lack of post-war planning?
Other newspapers have set out similar lines of inquiry.
Here is Philippe Sands in the Guardian. Ditto Michael Savage in The Independent with 15 questions for Blair. In the FT today Philip Stephens makes the argument for liberal interventionism, though not of the George W Bush variety.