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News, gossip and insight from PoliticsHome Editor Paul Waugh

Blair's Groundhog Day

 

So, in the end, Blair Day became Groundhog Day*.

Just like a year ago, it was looking like a vintage performance by the former Prime Minister.

Just like a year ago, we got punchy soundbites, an iron determination, an ability to marshall argument and subtly shift the goalposts, all the classic Blair attributes. The Chilcot panel upped their game a bit, but yet again couldn't really cope with the consummate communicator and barrister-politician par excellence.

To rub it in, he was even preparing to make up for his one (big) blemish last year and deliver an expression of "regret" for the loss of life.

But then, just like last January, he overreached himself. Exasperated by one more question about Iran being more of a threat now than before Saddam was toppled, he seemed to snap.

Tehran's "theocracy" was defying the UN, sponsoring chaos in the Middle East and a threat to the West's "fundamental way of life", he said. And then came the kicker: "They're going to carry on doing it unless they are met with requisite determination and if necessary force."

War with Iran? Yes that's what it sounded like.

For some in the public gallery, the determination suddenly curdled into stridency, the iron will suddenly sounded callous and unfeeling.

The silence in the room was broken. One woman heckled "stop trying to kill them!". Bereaved mothers cried.

Blair was ironically just at the point where he was going to make that expression of regret. He proceeded to deliver it:

"Of course I regret deeply and profoundly the loss of life, whether from our own armed forces and those of other nations and civilians who helped people or the Iraqis themselves."

Friends and allies of Blair had advised him to fill in this one blind spot from last year. As a corrective, his memoir certainly made plain his sorrow and ongoing anguish. Today, he delivered the regret line well.

But it was too late. The mood of the room had changed just before he delivered it.

A woman in pink shouted "It's too late!". Two weeping women shook their heads, turned their backs on him and then walked out.

Chairman Sir John Chilcot had to call the meeting to order to allow Mr Blair to finish.  "Your lies killed my son, I hope you can live with that," said Rose Gentle, mother of killed soldier Gordon Gentle. Another woman said: "He'll never look us in the eye".

Blair's supporters will say this is clear proof that the man is damned if he does, damned if he doesn't.

Yet until that point, his voice catching as he expressed regret, what struck me most was how confident and defiant Blair's evidence had been.

He had been sent no fewer than 105 separate, detailed questions by the Chilcot panel. But in his written reply, he avoided answering them individually and simply delivered a submission on his own terms, with his own sub-headings.

Blair knew he couldn't sound exactly the same as last year. He had come armed to the teeth with arguments, some of them fresh. He had regrets, but only regrets that he hadn't been tougher and clearer earlier.

He dismissed the row over Lord Goldsmith's worries on the legality of war, pointing out that his Attorney General - unlike himself - hadn't understood the full diplomatic background to UN resolution 1441. Blair made clear that he was his own Attorney General. His only regret was that Goldsmith hadn't been introduced earlier to his US counterparts and made to see sense.

At one point, he even suggested that "in retrospect" maybe he shouldn't have put so much effort into getting a second UN resolution and that maybe Goldsmith should have just "camped" on 1441 to prove it could still authorise force.

On WMD, the panel didn't even bother asking about it. In his written submission, Blair devoted just 4 paragraphs to it. In those, he stressed that the JIC had told him on Sept 2, 2002, "we believe that Iraq has recently accelerated its weapons programme".

On Chirac, he again had a stronger defence. He said that no matter what Chirac had meant by "ce soir", the French were never going to allow a UN resolution which included a clear ultimatum to Saddam. Without that, the UN 2nd resolution would have turned into a 3rd, a 4th and a 5th, he said.

Yet it was on the whole issue of misleading Parliament and the Cabinet and entering a private deal with Bush that he was most effective today.

Blair decided that to shift opinion on this he needed to move the argument back to 9/11. Last year, he came up with a new phrase, saying that 9/11 altered the "calculus of risk" posed by Saddam. This year, he went much further.Typically, offence was the best form of defence.

Having been repeatedly accused of plotting in 2002 a secret change of policy towards regime change, his main rebuttal was this: forget 2002, I was actually switched to regime change in 2001.

A string of new memos, his witness statement and his oral testimony all point to 9/11 being the key moment.

As Blair put it succinctly today:

"Upto September 11, we had been managing this issue. After September 11, we decided we had to confront and change"

(The MI6 officer who first briefed him on regime change, had put it more elegantly. The idea "came out of the ground like a mist following the change of temperature on 9/11... It became clear to all of us that nothing short of decisive intervention in Iraq was going to satisfy the Americans. That can't be sourced to a particular telegram, conversation.")

Blair's main point was that he was no poodle, he was helping to lead the 'confront and change' approach. He was also saying that his meeting with Bush at Crawford, Texas, "did not result in an alteration of policy..the policy had been clear since 9/11."

Last year, Blair had been stressing that regime change was of course not his offical policy. He was in favour of disarmament first and foremost, through the UN. Today, he said time and again that in his secret memos and calls to Bush he was no different from his public persona: that Saddam had to be dealt with.

The fact remains that on paper Britain's official policy was not regime change - precisely because the FCO lawyers wouldn't wear it - but somehow he made it sound compelling.

It's most fitting that, until the drama at the end, the most eye-catching story from today was going to be Blair's "gung ho" approach.

In a previously unpublished memo from Blair, dated March 17, 2002 (a whole year before the war), he told chief of staff Jonathan Powell:

"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."

It was precisely that switch from reasoned barrister-politician to "gung ho" militarist that seemed to spark the upset in the room today.

Then again, perhaps it was Blair's love of the US that did for him in PR terms. In America, "gung ho" simply means "enthusiastic" or "dedicated". Outside America, it means "careless but quick".

 

 

*FOOTNOTE: Blair even looked like he did last year. His crisp white shirt and sombre suit were similar. But as with Groundhog Day, some things have to look slightly different. This year he swapped his red tie for a blue one.

 

 


 

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