How Lord Butler can now hope to produce a credible report into the intelligence that preceded the Iraqi war is one of those mysteries of the British establishment. Or rather a tribute to the way that the establishment can plod on regardless of public ridicule, regardless even of the need to contribute anything worthwhile at the end of it. It's called "duty", or doing "the right thing by the job".
But it has become, in political terms at least, a pretty meaningless exercise, especially after the Conservative Party's withdrawal of support. It may be that Michael Howard walked away from it for opportunist reasons, as Gerald Kaufman, bringing up the rear of the government attack dogs, urged yesterday at Prime Minister's Questions. It may be, as the latest insidious spin would have it, that Howard has a long-term animosity to Butler, dating back 10 years to when Howard insisted on bringing over his permanent secretary with him when he was made Home Secretary
You don't really need either explanation, however. The simple fact is that Howard knew he was wrong to have agreed to participate in the first place and now needed to get out of the commitment before he found himself hindered from pursuing the questions of intelligence and Tony Blair's decision to go to war. That's, of course, why the Prime Minister wanted the Tories locked into the inquiry in the first place. Howard's belated extrication is not only a break for freedom but a clear indication that Iraq will remain a key to the opposition assaults on the Government over the future.
You don't need to believe the Tory leader's ponderous explanation of changing his mind after he heard Lord Butler's explanation of his remit (he should have seen that from the start) to accept that there is no political advantage to participating in a report that is deliberately keeping clear from all questions of political blame or the part individual politicians played in using or abusing the intelligence.
That does not necessarily mean that the report, when it comes in late July, will prove entirely supine in its conclusions. True the committee - of Lord Butler, former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Inge, former chief of the defence staff, Sir John Chilcot, former permanent secretary at the Northern Ireland Office, Ann Taylor, Labour chairperson of the Commons and Intelligence and Security Committee, and Michael Mates, now representing himself (and presumably providing the light relief) - is there for their loyalty to the system as much as their credentials.
The very fact that expectations are so low and their willingness to undertake the task so derided could well impel the committee to produce a more critical report, one in which they can try and recover some pride, even within their narrow remit. This applies particularly to Lord Butler. Because, for him, this is a greater test than the others, the point at which he has to decide whether to stand up for the civil service against the Government's desire to blame its advice or whether he betrays his old profession and, by accepting the narrowest definition of his task, implicitly accepts that everything was the fault of the officials and nothing could be blamed on their political direction.
It's a peculiarly tense decision for him as, in a real sense, he has already faced this challenge and failed it. As Cabinet Secretary between 1988 and 1998, under first Mrs Thatcher, then John Major and then, even more intensely, in the first year of Tony Blair he presided over a radical process of politicisation of the civil service and a growing propensity of politicians to break the old rules of not passing the buck on to their officials.
On a series of occasions, most notably over the affair of Jonathan Aitken, he was brought directly into the political process and was unable to keep his service at arm's length.
When he left the service in 1998 to become Master of University College, Oxford, it was, according to colleagues, with a feeling of frustration at the growth of spin and the misuse of the civil service. It was also, it has to be said, to a feeling by his juniors that he had proved too weak to hold the line. Whether this made him a good choice to lead an Oxford college and whether Oxford is wise to continue the traditional practice of offering the headships of colleges as a retirement job for senior public officials in this day and age, is another question.
But the question of whether he is the right man to head an inquiry into so important an issue as the intelligence leading to war is very much to the point now. That the intelligence community grossly overestimated Saddam Hussein's ability to produce weapons of mass destruction (just as they underestimated Libya and Iran's) is beyond dispute. But then how can you judge their culpability without reference to the pressures placed upon them from above, with the Prime Minister's director of communications sitting on their shoulder?
Lord Butler is not allowed by his terms - and may be glad of the fact - to go into the issue that most concerns politicians and public: that of the use to which the intelligence was put. But he can do something to investigate and expose how the raw intelligence came to the point of dramatic assertion within the system. If, that is, he wants to avoid going down in history as the man who took the irony out of the title "Yes, Minister".Reuse content