The language by which Mr Blair deceives us

Prime Ministers ought to be "straight sorts of guys" but Mr Blair, on the Hutton evidence, is not
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The Independent Online

The Hutton inquiry has provided us with the means to decode statements by the Prime Minister. This can be seen by going back to some of Tony Blair's recent assertions and then comparing them with the relevant Hutton material.

Having announced the setting up of the inquiry into David Kelly's suicide, for example, Mr Blair was asked by journalists travelling with him whether he had authorised the leaking of the scientist's name. In reply, Mr Blair said: "Emphatically not. I did not authorise the leaking of the name of David Kelly."

However, the Hutton material shows that he chaired a series of meetings at which it was decided to release the fact that an official with the Ministry of Defence had admitted contact with the BBC journalist, Andrew Gilligan. Thus those officials who took the detailed decisions knew precisely what were the views of the Prime Minister, and in particular what were his objectives.

Indeed this system of doing what the boss wants without him or her spelling it out is how most decisions are taken every day. In Nazi Germany, to take an extreme example, it was called "working towards the Führer".

In his reply to the journalist's question on the aircraft, however, Mr Blair said exactly what ought to be the case, that a prime minister wouldn't authorise the release of such a name, as if it was the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And, for good measure, he added a strong adverb, "emphatically". This is I think is the essence of the Prime Minister's technique.

Mr Blair, for instance, told the House of Commons in June: "The allegation that the 45-minute claim provoked disquiet among the intelligence community is ... completely and totally untrue".

Once again the strong adverbs - as if the Prime Minister is trying to draw strength from them in order to get over a high hurdle. A completely truthful reply might well have been: "I am unaware of any disquiet among the intelligence community about the 45-minute claim". But because Mr Blair is always drawn to stating what should be the case, that there was no disquiet, he spoke as if he had checked with every relevant official - which of course he hadn't.

And now we learn from the Hutton inquiry just how much doubt existed among those qualified to express an opinion.

For me this yields the following rule of thumb when listening to the Prime Minister respond to questions. He will instinctively say in strong terms what should be the case. But whether his reply is close to or distant from the truth is unknowable at the time. With this in mind, I reread to the transcript of the press conference given by Mr Blair last week.

One of the first questions the Prime Minister was asked was whether more British troops would be sent to Iraq. He replied: "The position on troops is that we keep it constantly under review, but unless there's a recommendation that comes forward from our military commanders that they require more troops, we don't provide them."

This, I think, is a good example of Mr Blair's method. In reply to the question he describes what should be the case, that everything depends upon the judgement of the military chiefs. But does this mean, for instance, that if the American President, George Bush, were to ask the British Prime Minister to kindly contribute more troops, all that Mr Blair would reply is - it solely depends upon what our military commanders want? I doubt it.

Mr Blair was also asked about the constant terrorist attacks in Iraq. He replied: "It's not ordinary Iraqis that are killing UN and Iraqi people and religious leaders. It's these terrorists and the former supporters of Saddam."

At first hearing this is a factual statement, presumably founded upon evidence from arrests. But I now see it primarily as a statement of what should be the case. For if the Prime Minister admitted that so-called "ordinary" Iraqis were involved, then he would be destroying the moral basis for the continuing presence of coalition forces.

The questioner persisted: "You are saying that outside terrorists are part of the problem the US and UK face in Iraq, and yet the evidence for that is very scanty. Can you be more specific, because that is disputed, it is heavily disputed."

Prime Minister: "I don't know how heavily it is disputed. I think most people would accept there is evidence of such outside groups." Questioner: "In increasing numbers?"

Prime Minister: "Yes, that is what I believe, that there are increasing numbers."

These are weak replies. What one expects to hear, but doesn't, is that a certain number of suspects have been arrested, that some of them turn out to be known members of the Baathist party or former officials of the Saddam government, and that others have proved to be citizens of neighbouring Arab countries.

The truth is, I suspect, that Mr Blair has little idea who is responsible for the atrocities even though he gives the opposite impression.

In November 1997, interviewed about suspiciously large donations to New Labour, Mr Blair said: "I think that most people who have dealt with me think that I am a pretty straight sort of guy."

Certainly prime ministers ought to be pretty straight sorts of guy, but Mr Blair, on the Hutton evidence, is not.