Steady Brown negotiates inquiry tightrope

For a man walking a tightrope, Gordon Brown looked remarkably steady.

He wanted to express his sadness for the deaths of British troops in Iraq without accepting responsibility for them.

He wanted to put distance between himself and Tony Blair's frantic planning for war, but not so much that it appeared he was out of the loop.

And above all he wanted to respond to criticism that he slashed the defence budget without sounding like he resented paying £8 billion for the Iraq invasion and its aftermath.

There may have been one or two wobbles at some of the more awkward questions, but Mr Brown made it to the end of his high-wire session before the Chilcot Inquiry without any real stumbles.

He had two techniques for keeping his balance: repeating a mantra about the Treasury funding "a rising defence budget" and making it absolutely clear that he was not Tony Blair.

Mr Brown arrived through the main entrance of the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre as a small group of demonstrators in the background chanted slogans accusing him of war crimes.

The Prime Minister even managed a small smile for the waiting photographers and cameramen.

It was a clear contrast to Mr Blair, who was whisked in and out of the conference centre through side doors to avoid the glare of flashbulbs and the fury of protesters.

The message was plain - Mr Brown had nothing to hide and was more than happy to face the public about his part in the Iraq War.

The Prime Minister has evidently been studying the Chilcot Inquiry transcripts with some care to pick up in-jokes.

He admitted to having regrets, albeit only about the planning for post-invasion reconstruction and not for the failings his critics allege in the funding of Britain's armed forces.

Mr Blair was widely criticised when he rejected the chance to express a similar sentiment for what went wrong in Iraq, telling the inquiry he felt "responsibility but not a regret".

When retired diplomat Sir Roderic Lyne asked Mr Brown whether he had seen a detailed version of the attorney general's advice on the legality of the war, the Prime Minister smiled as he replied: "No. Look, I'm not a lawyer - I'm not an international lawyer."

Observers of the Chilcot Inquiry will remember that Foreign Office legal adviser Elizabeth Wilmshurst, who resigned in protest at the war, cuttingly pointed out that barrister-turned-minister Jack Straw was "not an international lawyer".

When Sir Roderic asked Mr Brown why he wasn't more involved in discussions about the Iraq invasion, given that he was "widely seen as one of the most influential members of Cabinet and the likely successor", he laughed before replying: "It is very kind of you to say that, but I did not feel at any point that I lacked the information that was necessary."

Mr Brown avoided too much intimacy when referring to his predecessor in Number 10, calling him "the prime minister", "Mr Blair" or even "Tony Blair", but not plain "Tony".

By contrast former Commons leader Robin Cook - who resigned over the war - was "Robin".

But Mr Brown did make an apparently unequivocal statement of support for the man who took Britain to war in Iraq.

"I do say that everything that Mr Blair did during this period, he did properly," he said.

Unlike Mr Blair, Mr Brown engaged with the audience in the small inquiry chamber, even turning around and saying hello to them as the session broke for lunch.

Whether it was the Prime Minister's eloquence or just boredom - several people struggled to stay awake during a detailed explanation of Whitehall accounting rules - he succeeded in silencing any critics in the room.

Mr Brown may have frustrated some by avoiding giving clear answers to some of the key questions, but unlike Mr Blair he made it through his session without being heckled.

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