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UK Politics

Blair demanded: Hold Iraq inquiry in secret

Critics say Tony Blair's hopes of becoming the EU president risk being scuppered if the investigation is held in public

The row over the decision to hold the Iraq war inquiry behind closed doors escalated last night as it emerged that Tony Blair pressed Gordon Brown to keep it private.

In a move that will deepen the outrage of families of British soldiers killed in Iraq, the former prime minister, one of the architects of the controversial war, wanted the hearings to be held in secret to avoid a public and media circus.

A public appearance by Mr Blair before the Chilcot inquiry would also damage his ambitions of becoming EU president, a role that needs the support of European countries that opposed the war.

Last Monday the Prime Minister announced the long-awaited inquiry into the war in an attempt to shore up his premiership and appease Labour backbenchers. But he immediately caused anger by revealing that the inquiry, led by Sir John Chilcot and a panel of other privy councillors, would be held in private.

In the face of anger from generals and bereaved families, Mr Brown performed a partial U-turn on Thursday by agreeing to some public sessions, although the hearings will be mainly behind closed doors.

Now, in a fresh twist, it has emerged that Mr Blair intervened to influence the PM's decision.

It is understood that Mr Blair did not ask Mr Brown directly but through intermediaries, who asked Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, to urge the Prime Minister to hold a secret inquiry.

Downing Street sources were quoted last week as saying the Prime Minister had considered holding it in public, and Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary and a close ally of Mr Brown, said he backed a more "open" inquiry.

The revelation will raise further questions over Mr Brown's authority and suggests how keen he is not to upset Mr Blair and his allies. It came as Mr Brown told The Guardian yesterday that he could "walk away from all of this tomorrow", in a sign of the intense pressure he is under.

Supporters of Mr Blair, meanwhile, said there was a fear that the former prime minister being hauled before a public court would end up with him falling victim to "mob justice".

The shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said last night: "If this is true, it only adds to the case for the inquiry to be open to the public whenever possible. The terms of the inquiry should not be set by the former prime minister whose policies and actions will be most under scrutiny. Mr Brown should have the courage to make his own decisions."

Asked if Mr Blair had, through third parties, asked for the inquiry to be private, a spokesman for the former PM said only: "It is a decision for the current Prime Minister."

A Downing Street spokesman said: "We have always been clear that we consulted a number of people before announcing the commencement of the inquiry, including former government figures. We are not going to get into the nature of those discussions. Sir John Chilcot will make recommendations on how he believes the inquiry would be conducted effectively."

As members of the Privy Council, Sir John and his panel will have full access to government documents. Mr Blair and a number of former ministers, army commanders and generals are expected to give evidence.

When he announced the scope of the inquiry in Parliament, Mr Brown said issues of national security prevented it from being fully open. But this was immediately rebuffed by a several generals.

Despite No 10's insistence that a "number of people" were consulted, the head of the Army, Sir Richard Dannatt, last week revealed he had not been consulted on the format of the inquiry and said he saw "a lot of merit" in holding some hearings in public.

His predecessor, General Sir Mike Jackson, head of the Army at the time of the 2003 invasion, said he would have "no problem at all" in giving his evidence in public. Private hearings would only serve to fuel a climate of "suspicion and scepticism".

Meanwhile, the former Conservative prime minister Sir John Major warned of a "whitewash" unless there was full disclosure.

This week a motion tabled by the Conservatives and put to the House, says: "The proceedings of the committee of inquiry should whenever possible be held in public."

Writing on his blog, Mr Blair's former spin doctor Alastair Campbell, who is likely to be called to give evidence at the inquiry, denied being involved in playing a key part in persuading the PM to hold it in private.

He said it was "not an open-and-shut case that the inquiry should be held in public", adding: "I can see the arguments for both sides – openness and transparency favours a public inquiry; but it may well be that the inquiry will do a better job freed from the frenzy of 24-hour media."

He said he found out about the inquiry when he read about it in the newspapers before the weekend.

In a letter to Sir John Chilcot last Wednesday, Mr Brown began backtracking by suggesting that there could be some public sessions.

He added: " I am fully committed to a thorough and independent inquiry. I have written to all relevant current and former ministers to underline the importance of their full co-operation. And the Cabinet Secretary is writing to departments to underline the need for full transparency.

"It is essential that all those appearing before the inquiry do so with the greatest possible candour and openness, and the inquiry itself proceeds as efficiently as possible, while maintaining full public confidence in the integrity of the process."

IoS poll: 'Green shoots' not far off, voters believe

British voters are at last beginning to see the green shoots of economic recovery, but Gordon Brown will not reap the political benefit of the upturn, a new poll for The Independent on Sunday reveals today.

More than two-thirds of voters believe the British economy will start to show signs of improvement "soon", according to the ComRes survey. This optimistic take compares with only 39 per cent when the question was last asked, in March this year.

However, growing confidence about the economy has not translated into support for the Government. Only 22 per cent of respondents said they planned to vote Labour at the next general election, the same as in May, and support for the Tories increased by one point, to 39 per cent.

The results also suggest that the Government's attempts to narrow the gap by claiming David Cameron would slash funding for frontline services is beginning to have an effect. Half of respondents agreed a Tory government "would probably cut public services too much".

ComRes telephoned 1,012 adults between 17 and 18 June. Full tables at www.comres.co.uk

Brian Brady