Labour faces the prospect of seeing Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq inquiry published in the year of the election, which Lord Mandelson has warned would be a “very difficult minefield” for Ed Miliband.
The political tug-of-war over classified documents is now so entrenched that the earliest publication date for the £9m inquiry has spilled over into 2015, The Independent has learnt.
The increasing prospect of the report on Iraq, six years after it was ordered, being published in the period before official campaigning begins ahead of next May’s general election is unnerving key advisers to the Labour leader, Ed Miliband.
The Independent has been told that discussions between the inquiry and the Cabinet Office remain deadlocked, and a year-long stand-off is now unlikely to be resolved before the current parliamentary session ends. Even if a deal were reached over the summer recess, legal protocols and procedures would push the Iraq report’s publication into the spring of next year.
Last year, Lord Mandelson, a leading figure in the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, warned that the Chilcot report would be a “very difficult minefield” for Mr Miliband to navigate his way through. He accepted the Iraq war remained a “very sensitive issue” for many in the Labour Party.
That concern has multiplied with the forecast of further delay for the report’s publication. Claims that a “compromise agreement” had been reached have proved to be mere optimism.
A spokesman for the Chilcot inquiry confirmed that progress on disclosure and discussions aimed at declassifying “sensitive categories of material” remained stalled. He also confirmed that the “Maxwellisation phase” had yet to begin.
The former Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Ming Campbell, said the inquiry is now “truly in limbo” and warned that it could become “a political pawn” in the run-up to the 2015 general election. “If the inquiry has now stalled it does no one any good,” he said.
Sir John warned David Cameron last November that it was “regrettable” that a deal could not be agreed with the Cabinet Office on the disclosure of communications sent in 2002 and 2003 between Mr Blair and the US President at the time of the Iraq war, George W Bush.
The Prime Minister replied to Sir John saying he hoped the difficulties would be “concluded as soon as possible”.
Despite Downing Street’s November 2013 optimism, not one letter has so far been sent out by the inquiry as part of the “Maxwellisation” process, the legal requirement to notify individuals who are criticised in a government-ordered report.
Mr Blair has been sent no detail from the inquiry on its contents and how he is portrayed. The former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, the former Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, and Mr Blair’s former communications chief, Alastair Campbell – who are all expected to have central roles in the report’s narrative – have been sent no information on what the report says about them.
A leading Labour figure, who will be among Mr Miliband’s closest confidants at the election, told The Independent the party would not want the “hurt and trauma” of Iraq to be revisited close to an election. He said the report held the potential to “remind the electorate of what went wrong” and the “fiasco on our watch that left a prime minister discredited”.
However, he accepted that a counter-view existed inside Labour’s higher ranks which claimed Mr Miliband could use Chilcot to “disown previous Labour administrations”.
The impasse between Sir John and the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, is over demands by the inquiry that 2002-03 communications between Tony Blair, who was then in No 10, and Mr Bush, who was then in the White House, be declassified and published, unredacted, in the final report.
Sir John is understood to agree with his inquiry team that a report that does not include the Bush-Blair exchanges “would lack credibility”. Sources close to Sir John and his four colleagues say they now regard the Cabinet Office’s attitude towards to their requests as “ridiculous and intransigent”.
Last year The Independent revealed that early drafts of the inquiry report had authoritatively challenged “previous accounts of what happened” in 2002 and 2003, when Mr Blair sent 45,000 British troops into Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The Chilcot inquiry has had full unfettered access to all government papers. The Cabinet Office has been in a constructive dialogue with the inquiry team over recent months, with a clear view to meeting their declassification requests. That process should be concluded shortly.”
Timeline: Chilcot inquiry
June 2009 Gordon Brown announces an inquiry.
July 2009 Sir John Chilcot launches the inquiry as its chair, to consider the period from 2001 to the end of 2009.
January-February 2011 The inquiry holds its final round of public hearings.
March 2013 The Independent reveals that early drafts of the report “challenge previous accounts of what happened” in the run-in to the 2003 war.
June 2013 New forecast date for the inquiry’s “Maxwellisation” process to begin.
November 2013 Sir John tells David Cameron it is “regrettable” that the Government and his inquiry have failed to agree on the disclosure of “difficult categories of documents”.
April 2014 Inquiry admits that the Maxwellisation has yet to start.