One of the difficulties of writing about politics is, I find, to judge what weight should be given to performance. It is the old story of form and content, as in: "Say what you like about old Adolf, but he's a jolly fine platform performer, give him his due."
Several of my colleagues adopted this approach with Mr Tony Blair's speech on Wednesday. Themselves opposed to the war in Iraq, and sceptical of what Mr Blair and his colleagues have said about it since by way of justification, they nevertheless found his performance, so they told us, what was variously described as masterful, powerful and commanding.
Certainly he demonstrated his quality of resilience yet again. He clearly still likes being Prime Minister. Anthony Eden could not have spoken with such evident self-confidence before his resignation in 1957; nor did Harold Macmillan in 1963. Margaret Thatcher, it is true, could have done and indeed did, on several occasions; on the last of them, on the afternoon of the Great Fall, she brought down the House also. But I was always immune to the lady's oratorical prowess, such as it was.
It is the same with Mr Blair. The displays of martyr-like conviction which so impress my colleagues leave me unmoved. This is because I do not believe a word of it in the first place. As Dorothy Parker once observed of another American writer, every word is untrue, including "and", "the" and "but". The truth is not in him. I spotted this a long time ago, well before Mr Iain Duncan Smith and, later, Mr Michael Howard took it up.
Mr Blair's moral culpability is limited - so some, at any rate, would argue - because he has the ability to convince himself that what he is saying at any given moment is true. In this respect he resembles the confidence trickster who preyed on women and was depicted on BBC2 last Thursday and whose name I fortunately forget. Take, for instance, his response to the claim made by Mr Andrew Gilligan's defenders (a small but distinguished band) that 95 per cent of what he had said was right. On the contrary, Mr Blair said, it was 100 per cent wrong. Whereupon there were a few sycophantic "Hear, hears" from the benches behind him. Even Lord Hutton did not go as far as this. In fact what he wrote was that "sexing up" "could mean that whilst the intelligence contained in the dossier was believed to be reliable, the dossier was drafted in such a way as to make the case against Saddam Hussain as strong as the intelligence contained in it permitted. If the term is used in this latter sense, then because of the drafting suggestions made by 10 Downing Street ... it could be said that the Government 'sexed up' the dossier."
The committee of workers, peasants and intellectuals set up by Mr Blair under Lord Butler are hardly likely to find anything less damning than this. They are equally unlikely to find that ministers told positive untruths. But they could well find that members of the Government had been gullible - as were the intelligence services themselves. All these matters are well within the committee's remit. This could further include Mr Blair's apparent ignorance (disputed by Mr Robin Cook) of what the 45-minute warning applied to and whether the period in question was invented, made up: not, of course, by Mr Blair, still less by any of his colleagues, but by a discontented dweller in some insalubrious souk.
So far from drawing a line under anything, and getting us all to move on - the favoured prescription of the Prime Minister and a parroting Cabinet - Lord Butler has now brought out a fresh pad of A4 paper and invited us to await his deliberations rather than to move on anywhere. If Mr Blair guessed that Lord Butler would neutralise Lord Hutton or, rather, the effect produced by Lord Hutton, he has made the wrong guess. It is no doubt highly confusing for him, as it is for most of us. We are, it seems, in a political universe not only of backlashes but of backlashes to backlashes: as if we were in the middle of a room with mirrors on opposite walls, or contemplating an infinite series which could be understood only through the most advanced mathematics. Still, we can do our best to try to simplify matters.
The public response to Lord Hutton's report was surprising, not because people any longer have much respect for judges - for that went in the 1980s - but because, for once, the people were on the same side as the press. The voters too had observed on television the seemingly endless hot procession of shifty, suited men entering the Royal Courts of Justice; heard their hesitating and often self-contradictory answers not only reported but re-enacted on their screens; and arrived at their own conclusions. Owing to Lord Hutton's always courteous but never less than pointed interventions, they had assumed that he too was thinking along similar critical lines.
The same assumption was made by the newspapers. When it turned out not to be so, when the gentlemen from Whitehall were given the benefit of every conceivable doubt, the people turned not so much on Lord Hutton as on Mr Blair, who was clearly not to be trusted. The papers did likewise but turned on Lord Hutton too, saying he was a conservative Presbyterian. I may claim to have got Lord Hutton more right than most long ago when I described him as the sort of judge who would politely offer you a glass of finest Ulster sparkling-type mineral water before sentencing you to death.
The other factor was the BBC. It occupies much the same position in British life as the NHS. Both may be bureaucratic organisations which can be grumbled about or even vilified: but both have broadly beneficent intentions. Above all, they are, or are thought to be, fair. The voters are prepared to side with the BBC against the Government as they would not be prepared to side with the press.
It is not, however, entirely correct to say that the papers have all turned against Mr Blair. It puzzles me that columnists who want to see Mr Blair re-elected attack Mr Rupert Murdoch as vigorously as they do. For The Times and The Sun are the most dedicated supporters of the Government politically and Mr Blair personally, exceeded in devotion only by the Financial Times, which Mr Murdoch does not own, or not yet. The representatives of liberal enlightenment, what I call the Prig Press, have by contrast fallen out of love with Mr Blair, even though they will probably urge their readers to carry on voting for him come the election. Whether the voters will be prepared to oblige in sufficient numbers, who can now tell?Reuse content