The Chilcot inquiry: A very British arrangement

At the Iraq hearings, a succession of clubbable mandarins reject any responsibility for the 2003 invasion. Brian Brady and Jane Merrick report

Finally, after 10 days of gentle probing and almost apologetic questioning from the Chilcot inquiry, we have a bona fide revelation. It is a pity that the nugget was teased out by a television presenter, a world away from the bland arena of the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre.

A pity, but not in any way surprising. When Tony Blair finally appears before the retired civil servant Sir John Chilcot and his four esteemed colleagues (three more knights and a baroness) early next year, it is unlikely that he will bare all in the way he opened up to Fern Britton.

"I would still have thought it right to remove him," the former prime minister says on BBC1's Fern Britton Meets... today, when asked whether the invasion of Iraq in 2003 would have been justified even if it was known then that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. "Obviously, you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat."

Most of the findings that have been coaxed out by the Chilcot Five so far have been rehashed versions of revelations from previous inquiries into the Iraq War. Yet the inquiry has not been without interest. The mandarins and military types have distinguished themselves with their eagerness to admit to faults in the run-up to the conflict – and to ensure that blame for these failings is pinned elsewhere.

Mr Blair himself, as revealed by this newspaper, has railed against the "shredding" of his precious reputation in the sanitised surroundings of the QEII. Evidence from the worthies has painted a picture of a half-baked strategy, drawn up largely in Washington with the willing assistance of the former prime minister and his close advisers – sometimes in spite of the advice from government experts. The allegations have emerged often despite the gentle questioning of panel members, as if the mandarins had arrived with a list of points to make regardless.

Chilcot was meant to draw a line under the Iraq conflict, "to enable us to learn the lessons of the complex and often controversial events of the last six years", as Gordon Brown explained when announcing the move in June. But it is also being used as an opportunity to bury not so much Mr Blair, but the informal, cliquey style of "sofa" government. It is not simply a question of style; observers maintain that the structure of Mr Blair's high command had a critical impact on the run-up to war.

The attack on Iraq was inevitable once Mr Blair had signed up to the Bush blueprint a year before the operation, regardless of any siren warnings from his own staff – beyond the impeccable manners and discreet language, this is the point that many of the mandarins have been there to make. Mr Blair, with prodding from Ms Britton, has now strengthened their argument.

The most startling point, for critics, after Mr Blair's new comments, is that they undermine his claim in February 2003 that Saddam could have saved himself by co-operating with UN weapons inspectors in accordance with Security Council resolution 1441. In his Britton interview, Mr Blair makes clear that nothing would have stopped the march to war, regardless of what Saddam did. In fact, eight months before the war, military action appeared to be set in stone.

A leaked minute of talks in Downing Street on 23 July 2002 between Mr Blair, Jack Straw, the MI6 chief, Sir Richard Dearlove, Alastair Campbell and other senior officials showed that the White House had created the "end" and was erecting the "means" – justifying war with the threat of Iraq's WMD and the wider threat of terrorism.

According to Sir Richard's report on his recent visit to Washington, the minute read: "There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable ... But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

Mr Campbell's diary account of the same meeting shows: "TB was pretty clear that we had to be with the Americans. He said at one point, 'It's worse than you think; I actually believe in doing this' ... When Jack raised the prospect of not going in with the US, TB said that would be the biggest shift in foreign policy for 50 years and I'm not sure very wise."

According to those who spoke to Mr Blair in the weeks before the March 2003 invasion, it was his concern about holding the special relationship together that was the number one reason for war in Iraq – not WMD. The secondary reason was the violence of the Iraq state and human rights. Mr Blair used the phrase "uniquely evil" to describe Saddam in an effort to persuade waverers. "In the last three months before war, the morality of allowing Saddam to remain was his main argument," said a well-placed source. Yet in public, Mr Blair continued to use WMD as the casus belli.

Colonel Bob Stewart, a former United Nations commander, said: "Blair is trying to square the circle in his mind but, as far as I recall, public opinion was with him in 2003. His dodgy dossier of weapons of mass destruction probably made it easier to get people behind him."

The former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said Mr Blair would have struggled to maintain support in his own Cabinet if he had expressed similar views in 2003.

He added: "He would not have obtained the endorsement of the House of Commons on 18 March 2003 if he had been as frank with the House of Commons then as he appears to be willing to be frank with the BBC now."

James Fergusson, author of A Million Bullets: the Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan, said: "He lied to Parliament about weapons of mass destruction and he is now coming closer to admitting that he lied about it than he ever has before. It is jaw-dropping."

Together, the Chilcot witnesses' contributions are beginning to mount up into a compelling case against the invasion. The panel can hardly take credit for the developing view that the operation was ill-conceived. The "cross-examination" from Sir John and his colleagues has been remarkable in what it has failed to establish – or what it has overlooked.

They have heard, for example, that Mr Blair and George Bush signed a deal "in blood" over Iraq in 2002 – but they don't know what was said.

According to sources with knowledge of the workings of the inquiry, the relaxed questioning style could be explained by the fact that panel members are relying on paperwork – minutes and documents – for evidence rather than the oral sessions.

But it is the treatment of Sir John Scarlett that raised the most outrage. The man in charge of the notorious Downing Street dossier on Iraq's weapons stockpile wasn't asked why Mr Blair and Alastair Campbell were allowed to amend the document. He did not have to explain why he hadn't been aware that a senior member of the Defence Intelligence Staff had expressed "serious concerns" about the claim that Iraq could fire its weaponry within 45 minutes.

When Mr Blair faces the Chilcot panel early next year it will be in private, so we may never know whether he gets away so lightly.

Additional reporting by Danny Brierley

Pick an argument, any argument: The ex-PM’s excuses for war

1. Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. He has previously used chemicals against his own people.

2. "There is a major struggle going on all over the world, which is about Islam and what is happening within Islam."

3. There will only be stability in the region once he has been removed.

4. The Iraqi people – their health, well-being, and freedom – will benefit from Saddam's removal.

5. Of all the hateful regimes in the world, his has the advantage of being one we can defeat without too much trouble.

6. We have unfinished business. And God wants us to do it.

7. He has an ugly moustache and scary eyes. And that hair – it's got to be dyed, hasn't it?

8. He's got more homes than Cherie and I have. And, you know, I think that's unfair, to be frank.

As imagined by David Randall

What Tony Blair has said

7 April 2002

Speech at the George Bush Senior Presidential Library, College Station, Texas

"If necessary, the action should be military and, again, if necessary and justified, it should involve regime change. To allow WMD to be developed by a state like Iraq without let or hindrance would be grossly to ignore the lessons of 11 September and we will not do it."

24 September 2002

Statement to the Commons, presenting intelligence dossier on Iraq's weapons

"The intelligence picture they paint is one accumulated over the past four years. It is extensive, detailed and authoritative."

13 January 2003

Downing Street press conference

"My fear is that we wake up one day and we find ... that one of these dictatorial states has used weapons of mass destruction – and Iraq has done so in the past – and we get sucked into a conflict, with all the devastation that would cause."

25 February 2003

Statement to the Commons, urging Saddam Hussein to comply with United Nations resolution 1441

"Even now he [Saddam] can save it by complying with the UN's demand. Even now, we are prepared to go the extra step to achieve disarmament peacefully. I do not want war ... But disarmament peacefully can only happen with Saddam's active co-operation."

5 March 2004

Speech in his Sedgefield constituency

"Our primary purpose was to enforce UN resolutions over Iraq and WMD. We haven't found the physical evidence of them in the 11 months since the war. But, in fact, everyone thought he had them."

14 July 2004

Statement to the Commons on the Butler report

"The evidence of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction was indeed less certain and less well founded than was stated at the time ...

"For any mistakes made, as the report finds, in good faith I of course take responsibility, but I cannot honestly say that I believe that getting rid of Saddam was a mistake at all. Iraq, the region and the wider world are better and safer places without him."

28 September 2004

Speech to Labour conference

"I can apologise for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can't, sincerely at least, apologise for removing Saddam. The world is a better place with Saddam in prison, not in power ...

"Judgements aren't the same as facts. Instinct is not science. I'm like any other human being, as fallible and as capable of being wrong. I only know what I believe."

11 May 2007

Announcing his resignation at Trimdon Labour Club

"Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right. I may have been wrong. That's your call. But believe one thing if nothing else. I did what I thought was right for our country."

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