Into the valley of death, then back to the safety of home

Blair's Day: Carefully choreographed appearance avoided confrontation with demonstrators

For seven years, Tony Blair has arrived at public events with the impassioned cries of protesters ringing in his ears. Yesterday, he began his final and defining justification of the Iraq war to a different, timeless sound of reckoning – tolling bells.

At 7.30am precisely, the two-vehicle motorcade conveying the former prime minister to his appearance before the Chilcot inquiry swept into the side entrance of the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre under cover of the pre-dawn darkness.

By arriving a full two hours before he was due to face questions from the five-strong panel, Mr Blair cheated a 300-strong crowd of detractors of the chance to once more shout "Bliar". Instead, a silence broken only by the doleful chimes of Big Ben greeted his return to his former Westminster domain to answer for a conflict that claimed the lives of 179 Britons and anywhere between 100,000 and one million Iraqis.

It was probably not the portent that the consummate performer of British politics for a decade had wanted as he prepared to reprise the role that, whether he likes it or not, has become his own since March 2003: that of the man who bears the blame in Britain for a war now widely judged to have been unnecessary and disastrous. Here was what will almost certainly be the last gilded opportunity for the former prime minister to step once more into the Westminster spotlight, command the national stage and turn the tide of consensus that his premiership was irretrievably stained by the decision to tear Saddam Hussein from his perch.

And didn't he know it.

The co-architect of New Labour has made a point of outlining in interviews since his 2007 resignation how little time he gets to spend in his £4m central London townhouse as he jets around the world in the various roles that have boosted his bank balance by a reputed £10m. Recently, he has been spending more time in London. For the past week, boxes of documents have been delivered to Mr Blair's offices in the capital, where he had been seen preparing, on some days before dawn, for "judgement day".

As he entered the purpose-built inquiry chamber on the second floor of the building and walked past the first two rows of seating containing 20 relatives of British servicemen and women killed in Iraq, Mr Blair looked tanned – and terrified.

With features drawn, his hands visibly shook as he opened a bottle of mineral water after sitting down in his Mastermind-style black leather chair at 9.31am. Rose Gentle, whose son Gordon died in Iraq, was sat a few feet away after being granted one of the prized front row seats for the inquisition. She said: "I felt sick. He seemed to be shaking as well, which I am pleased about – the eyes of all the families were on him."

But it was not long before the tricks of the trade learnt at the dispatch box across the road in Parliament were flowing once more.

In response to his inquisitors' probings about weapons of mass destruction, the magisterial statesman deployed his own arsenal: if not weapons of mass distraction, what the British public got were Blair's weapons of mass seduction.

On top of the lawyerly incisiveness and the trademark charisma came, above all, the hands. And the glasses.

Issues from the "dodgy dossier" to the effects of 9/11 to the suspected Crawford ranch pact were tackled with a dazzling vocabulary of gestures which, in some ways, conveyed more meaning than the words exiting Mr Blair's mouth.

A mid-air karate chop was intended to demonstrate decisiveness ("It isn't about a lie or conspiracy or a deceit or a deception. It is about a decision"). Then there was the closed fist of rebuttal ("[The armed forces] wanted to be a wholehearted part of this"). Repeatedly seen were the hovering hands with palms downwards to display mastery of topic, and the pinched single hand, slightly jabbing, to deliver the insight of a decade in office. All of which came with the deployment of the spectacles.

While on, they were used to read from a dossier, this time of carefully prepared and incontestable "Iraq facts". A moment later, they were off again and the armature used to press home a point. Glasses on = fact. Glasses off = truth.

And so it went for six hours of exhaustive and exhausting earnestness, interspersed with 75 minutes for lunch (sandwiches in a witnesses room) and two 30-minute breaks. If it had been one of his talks to a select blue-chip audience on geopolitics, charged at £180,000 for 90 minutes, it was a performance that would have earned Mr Blair £720,000.

Of course, this was about something far more valuable. Reputation.

By the end Mr Blair, his voice hoarse, was ready deploy his grand finale of defiance. Firstly there was the strange arithmetic of war. While the perpetrators of 9/11 would have killed 30,000 people if possible, the removal of Saddam had reduced infant mortality in Iraq to 40 per thousand – saving 50,000 children's lives.

Regrets? To gasps of anger from grieving families, Mr Blair's answer in the negative came with one final gesture – his hand held to his heart.

The great performer exited stage left, pursued by his bodyguard. Outside, the tolling bells were about to be drowned out by the protesters' shouts of "Jail Tony" and "Blair lied".

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