Of Sofa Government and Facts.

The Chilcot Report was published this summer, after many years of waiting and expectation. I wrote about the report in a blog post on the date of publication. I explained how Sir John Chilcot’s report aimed to examine the path towards war in Iraq in 2003, and the country’s subsequent descent into civil war and terrorist violence after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The Inquiry’s remit, I noted, was to examine the UK’s decision to intervene in Iraq, how the British army’s offensive was conducted, and to determine where there lessons to be learnt from same. To undertake this, the Inquiry sought a wide timeframe: from the commencement of war in 2003, to when combat troops were remove from Iraq at the end of July 2009. I noted too how it was expected that Tony Blair would be largely acquitted of blame for the Iraq War. This conclusion was expected to be derived from the report’s main focus, i.e. what commitments Mr Blair gave to then-President Bush, and whether Mr Blair misled the UK public over the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction – which, it transpired, turned out to be non-existent.

I later wrote a post specifically about the reaction of former Prime Minister Tony Blair to the publication of the Report. I summarised Sir John’s findings, and the revelation of the collection of letters exchanged between then Prime Minister Tony Blair, and then President George W Bush. I thought the letters were revealing, showing that perhaps Mr Blair was uncertain about the proposed invasion, that perhaps he was still attempting to convince himself that this was the correct path to take. However, what I found to be most interesting was the press conference Mr Blair held immediately after Sir John’s public statement on the publication of the Report.

It was a surreal press conference, full of emotion, determination and a touch of theatre. For two hours, Mr Blair endured question after question, grilled on the finer points of detail raised by Sir John. Mr Blair submitted the decision to removal Saddam Hussein had been the “hardest, most momentous, most agonising” decision of his time as Prime Minister. Mr Blair took note of Sir John’s criticisms and said he took full responsibility for the failure of post-transitional planning. He however stated firmly that he would take the same decision to proceed with military intervention again, despite Sir John arguing the UK intervention went badly wrong and ‘with consequences to this day’. Basically, Mr Blair acknowledged the findings of the Chilcot Report, but despite expressing remorse over the deaths which resulted from his decision to go to war, he did not express regret for making that decision.

This was something that was touched upon today. For Chilcot is not over, and questions still remain over the Report’s findings – particularly around the conduct of Mr Blair.

Today, Sir John Chilcot appeared before the House of Commons Liaison Committee. It marked his first appearance and first time testifying since the publication of his report. Suffice to say, his evidence made for interesting reading. Moreover, if you thought his comments during the summer about Tony Blair, his decision-making, and style of leadership were critical, then today’s comments were cetainly damming.

The evidence session saw questions and answers which covered Mr Blair’s leadership, his relationship with his Cabinet, his decision-making, and the impact of the Iraq invasion on his premiership, and indeed British politics in general.

In a two-and-half hour session, Chilcot was asked if trust in politics had been corroded because MPs were fed an argument that could not reasonably be supported by the available evidence.

He replied: “I think when a government or the leader of a government presents a case with all the powers of advocacy that he or she can command, and in doing so goes beyond what the facts of the case and the basic analysis of that can support, then it does damage politics, yes.”

Chilcot then added that he “can only imagine” it would take a long time to repair the voters’ trust in their politicians. I feel that Sir John has a valid point here. Simply onsider how Mr Blair is viewed today, not just by supporters of the Labour Party but the UK electorate in general. Note how the mention of his name rovokes a negative reaction within the Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn: ‘Blairite’ is an insult. Recall that Liz Kendall was attacked for her position on Blairite policy when she contested the Labour leadership in 2015. His legacy as Prime Minister has become focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, and the civilian and military deaths effectuated by these conflicts. His brand, was so promising and hopeful has become toxic.

Sir John elaborated on the issue of evidence (or lack thereof) and held that Mr Blair’s case for war in Iraq went “beyond the facts” in a way that caused long-term damage to public trust in politics.

Referring to Mr Blair’s now-infamous speech to the House of Commons on the eve of war, Sir John said that “the evidence to support it was more qualified than he gave expression to”. (Ouch). Sir John added that whilst he believed the then-Prime Minister did not set out to willfully deceive Parliament, Mr Blair opted for persuasive rhetoric over setting out the facts, and relying upon accurate and valid evidence to make his case.

“A speech was made in advocate’s terms and putting the best possible inflection on the description that he used…

“I absolve him from a personal and demonstrable decision to deceive Parliament or the public, to state falsehoods knowing them to be false.

“However, he also exercised his very considerable powers of advocacy and persuasion rather than laying the real issues and the information to back the analysis of them fairly and squarely in front of either Parliament or the public. It was an exercise in advocacy.”

Sir John also made reference to his report’s finding that Mr Blair had “overestimated” his ability to influence US decision-making on Iraq. Yes, Mr Blair did manage to persuade Bush to turn to the UN and seek international support for military action in September 2002. But by the end of that year it was clear that the military timetable had taken control of the diplomatic process, and the US was calling on the shots on both. The UK and US had had differing objectves from the beginning, and Mr Blair, for all his efforts, did not manage to merge the objectives together for a truly united approach from both countries. For whilst the Bush administration had from the outset been determined to achieve regime change, Mr Blair had sought to reconcile the US’s goal with the UK’s objective to disarm Saddam.

The UK’s objective proved to be a problem in its own right. Mr Blair had argued that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and there was the potential risk of his using these weapons in the future. But as we all now know, there were no WMDs to be found at the moment of the invasion. Sir John accepted that on the eve of his crucial speech to Parliament in March 2003, Mr Blair genuinely believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The government’s Joint Intelligence Committee had wrongly told him this, Chilcot said, and Mr Blair was thus relying on false information, not indulging in willful fabrication. However, Sir John added that at that point there was “no evidence” Saddam intended to deploy such weapons against UK interests. There was no imminent threat. In fact, it later emerged Saddam had secretly destroyed his chemical and biological weapons after the Gulf war, and before international inspectors were allowed back into the country.

What I found most illuminating from Sir John’s evidence is that evidence which highlighted how Mr Blair’s leadership style contributed towards the Commons speech, and ‘beyond the facts’ approach. And how so? He simply was not challenged by his Cabinet.

Sir John’s words do not exactly place the former Labour Prime Minister in a postive light: his “sheer psychological dominance” of his Cabinet meant that few ministers sought to challenge him, or the legal advice on which he based his argument on the eve of the military intervention. Indeed, Sir John noted just how much he was struck by how few members of the Blair Cabinet challenged the Prime Minister. The main dissenting voice was that of the late Robin Cook, who resigned from his Cabinet position in protest at the decision.

It was also noted that Mr Blair’s preference for so-called ‘sofa government’ meant that the Cabinet was sidelined. The problem with ‘sofa government’, for all that it empowers the Prime Minister and can result in more decisive leadership and Cabinet efficiency, is that ministers are often not consulted on crucial decisions. The Committee actually asked if Mr Blair had perceieved himself as being the modern equivalent to the French King Louis XIV – who had famously declared ‘I am the State’. Sir John replied that such an approach “reached a high point in Mr Blair’s prime ministership”. (Ouch again.)

It is evident that Mr Blair preferred to make the decisions, and relay his case to Cabinet. Sir John pointed out to the Committee that there had been several occasions between 2002 and 2007 when “things were decided without reference to Cabinet”. Such ‘things’ included the legal basis on which the UK went to war in 2003 as part of a US-led coalition and the decision, once Saddam Hussein had been toppled, for the UK to take over the administration of four of Iraq’s southern provinces. Obviously, these were important decisions, involving high stakes decisions and policy. To know that there was a democratic deficit so to speak in the determination of such decisions. Cabinet should collectively debate and reach consensus, afer hearing arguments from all sides of the debate. Cabinet should not be a box-ticking exercis for a Prime Minister who has already made up their mind, and who prefers not to consult their ministers.

Moreover, it seems as those Mr Blair’s ministers were somewhat resigned to the situtation. At the very least, they were aware of Mr Blair’s prefered means of decision-making, and did not make efforts to speak out and demand to be included. For example, when referring to the evidence given to his inquiry, Sir John said he recalled asking the then-Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw why the Cabinet had not “provided more of a challenge” to Blair or even demanded more information.

“The answer that came back was that Tony Blair had, as leader of the Opposition and in government, rescued his party from a dire predicament. I had the sense from Straw’s answer that he had achieved a personal and political dominance, a sheer psychological dominance.

“He [Blair] had been right. Was he not right this time? That’s what I took from Mr Straw’s evidence.”

Indeed, perhaps the ministers preferred this means of working. It meant they could always fall back on the excuse of, “it was the Prime Minister’s decision” if the consequences of such a decision were unsatisfactory. What should also be considered is the suggested complacency which might be dervived from Mr Straw’s comment. There is a suggestion that Mr Blair was always right, or nearly always, and so there was no harm in going along with his decisions. This could be in part a consequence of the standing of Mr Blair within the party at the time: he was the Labour leader who brought the party back into government, who had ensured stunning election victories. In May 1997, Labour defeated the Conservative government with a landslide general election victory, the largest in its history. The party won another landslide victory in 2001, and even after the invasion of Iraq, won another general election in 2005 (albeit with a reduced majority). There was an aura of victory and success around Mr Blair, in hand wih his personal approval ratings and personality. Perhaps his Cabinet believed it was an easier and indeed a better option to follow Mr Blair’s decisions, given his public mandate and approval.

I previously refered to how the Chilcot report revealed that in a private note sent on 28th July 2002 Blair promised the then-US president, George W Bush: “I will be with you, whatever.” Whilst giving evidence to the Committee,  Sir John said the Cabinet was actually never informed about the note. Only Jonathan Powell, Mr  Blair’s Chief of Staff and David Manning, the UK’s ambassador to the US,  were aware of its existence. Sir John noted how “both tried to persuade him not to use those form of words. But he did.” Moverover, Mr Straw eventually found out about the letter after it had been issued, and when it was too late to say “you shouldn’t write it”.

It is therefore unsurprising that Sir John said to the Committee that in future those at the top of Whitehall should challenge ministers, even if their advice was not ultimately taken, and should also make a note of what they said at the time:

“It’s vital for serious decisions to be recorded in the public archive, not for immediate release necessarily, but they should be written down.

“If someone is in serious disagreement the reason for that decision, and the fact of it, should be recorded. [This] allows different voices to be heard.”

When asked by the Committee as to who was most responsible for the Iraq disaster, Sir John responded: Blair, Straw, and the defence secretary, Geoff Hoon. Mr Blair and Mr Straw were more experienced and therefore most at fault, he suggested. (I am only surprused that Mr Blair did not hold a press conference after Sir John testimony before the Committee).

Sir John informed the Committee of his satisfaction with the positive public reaction to his report. He said it was “particularly welcome” that it had been accepted by the bereaved families of the 179 British service personnel killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2009. He said said he was often asked what his most important finding was, after such a lenghty inquiry. After saying it was a “whole range of things” he elaborated, sayng it was the “failure to exert and exercise sufficient collective responsibility for a very big decision.”

Andrew Tyrie, Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, said the parliamentary hearing had been a useful exercise, adding that M Blair “did not feel the need to be constrained by facts when putting his case to Parliament.”

If one can take anything from the evidence session, it is that there truly is a need for collective responsbility, especially within the Cabinet, and especially on matters of national security, proposed intervention, and military exercise. The decision to invade another country, to engage in war, is not an easy one. Nor should it be. Lives of civilians, and military personnel must be considered. Planning for the future, for a transitional justice process and the strict necessity of observing human rights obligations are paramount. It cannot be determined by one individual, regardless of how many special advisors they have to hand. It is much more preferrable to gain the perspective of Cabinet collegues, and to hear arguments from all sides. If this had been undertaken instead of that one fateful decision reached by Mr Blair, th Iraq invasion might have been avoided. As it is, we shall never know. But we do know that there are lessons to be learnt, and mistakes to avoid for the future.

 

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