I think we can all agree that Tony Blair, who takes the stage in the Iraq inquiry about now, is unlikely to collapse, sobbing, on the witness table, begging for the nation’s forgiveness. But he will, nonetheless, have to do more today than he has done before.
Self-serving as the testimony of many government witnesses has been, it still shows the serious reservations they held at the time. The spectacle of so many of them, saying the same sorts of things, on the record, on television and over a relatively short period has piled great pressure on Blair. His usual lines that he acted in “good faith” and did the “right thing” will not be enough today.
The central charge against Blair is simple: that the decision to go to war was the beginning, not the end, of the process; that an agreement was made early, and secretly, with President Bush, despite the lack of a legal basis, factual justification and military planning – all three of which were later twisted to fit the decision already taken.
Blair, a skilled performer, will probably concede some error – on peripheral points. He will try to acknowledge the anger that people still feel. But he is unlikely to give ground on anything important. Perhaps his most important defence, against the most resonant charge – that he lied about Iraqi WMD – will be as follows.
He will say, correctly, that everyone – including countries which opposed the war – believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. And indeed, everyone did believe it – it was a perfectly logical inference to draw from Saddam’s behaviour, even if the evidence was weak. The Russians believed it. The French believed it. David Kelly believed it. I believed it.
But that is not the argument Blair made at the time. Everybody had assumed the existence of Saddam’s WMD for the previous 15 years, and it had never previously been seen as a justification for war. So the argument Blair made was that those WMD were a “growing” threat, a threat so “current and serious” that a war was needed to stop them. That, we can now definitely say, was false. There was no intelligence at all that the threat was growing, or that Saddam was in any way a danger to anyone, other than his own people.
It’s a very important distinction, too often missed. Let’s hope Team Chilcot gets it today. I’ll be blogging as the inquiry continues.