John Kampfner: Gordon Brown too is shamed by Iraq

The then Chancellor never questioned Tony Blair's vacuous assertions
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When he gives evidence before the Chilcot inquiry tomorrow, Gordon Brown must def-end the Iraq war while distancing himself from Tony Blair's messianic zeal. He must hint at his displeasure with George Bush's neocons, while not antagonising the Washington establishment. He must delve into the heart of Labour's most disastrous foreign policy adventure while entreating the more than one million voters who deserted the party in protest at the war at the 2005 general election to rejoin the fold.

Logic suggests the Prime Minister will fail in these endeavours. History suggests he deserves to. Indeed one can argue that Brown's role in Iraq was even more inglorious than Blair's. At least, one could argue, one knew where Blair stood on the principle, even if his actions left much to be desired.

Brown ensured that his role in the politics of Iraq was limited, to give himself cover. He is much more exposed on the question of the financing of the war. Kevin Tebbit, former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, caused a stir at the inquiry by accusing Brown of "guillotining" funds at the end of 2003. Brown's skirmishes with the generals over the defence budget are well documented. Did soldiers meet their deaths indirectly as a result of faulty body armour or out-of-date weaponry or flimsy vehicles? The same questions apply to Afghanistan. In human and political terms, these are far more dangerous for him.

When it came to the events of 2002-3, the Macavity label was made for Brown. At each step of the way he sent mixed messages; he hedged his bets. He allowed his aides to brief to people like me his displeasure. They were keen, under the cloak of anon-ymity, to portray the road to war as one of those examples of Blairite exuberance. Just wait for a serious prime minister, a professional, to take over, and all this kow-towing to the Americans, all this gun-slinging, would be a thing of the past, they suggested. They let it be known that Brown was worried about a "lack of identification" among British voters with the United States – code for his dislike of the Toxic Texan.

Brown may have been genuinely torn about the rights and wrongs of invading a country in order to topple an evil dictator, but under the guise of weapons of mass destruction. That much is relatively sincere. But his vacillating was more the product of his characteristic mix of political tactics and cowardice. If he had wanted to make clear his misgivings, he calculated that it would not be in his interests to do so. He never aired them in public because he did not want to get on the wrong side of the many newspaper editors who were gung-ho for war. He had a bigger battle to fight – for the long-awaited crown.

Brown could never bring himself to do what Robin Cook did – calmly but robustly to question Blair's vacuous assertions, demanding to see the evidence from the security chiefs. The responses Cook received convinced him that the case for war was bogus and he resigned as Leader of the House. Instead, during various fraught cabinet meetings, Brown buried himself behind mountains of papers, literally seeking to hide, scribbling away furiously with his scratchy pen – anything but to commit to a position.

As war became inevitable at the start of 2003, Brown realised the need to pledge loyalty to the cause. It seems strange to recall now, but many predicted that Blair would emerged strengthened from his altercation with Saddam Hussein. Brown's tribe were worried that the then Prime Minister would use the afterglow of a successful war to shunt their man from the Treasury to the "backwater" of the Foreign Office. They did not want to provide him with a ready-made excuse.

Once the occupation started to go hideously wrong, Brown began the counter-attack. He launched his assault on Blair's foundation hospitals project just at a time when Downing Street was obsessed with the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly. He used growing public anger over Iraq as a tool for his domestic political ambitions.

The more defiant Blair became during 2003-04, the more he hung on to the keys of Number 10, the more Brown privately disparaged the thinking behind the war. Cometh the next election, cometh the next turnaround. In 2005, when Blair's back was against the wall, and Alan Milburn's general election strategy stalled, Brown portrayed himself as the saviour of the campaign. When asked during a photo call whether he believed Blair had any case to answer for the war, he said emphatically he did not.

Once Brown had finally removed Blair, he sought to recalibrate relations with the White House. During his first visit as premier to Camp David in July 2007, he wore a demeanour of excruciating embarrassment as Bush drove him around in a golf buggy. His message was clear: I don't do gush. He quickly, however, fell into the usual pattern of Anglo obeisance. When it came to Barack Obama, he was so desperate to play the "special relationship" card that he was granted a walk through the kitchens of the United Nations with the new president.

During the final stages of his putsch against Blair, Brown had been keen to promote the idea of an inquiry about Iraq, as a backdrop for Labour MPs' discontent. Once in power, he insisted that such an investigation should take place only after British forces had quit Basra, arguing that anything earlier would undermine morale. Yet I have yet to meet a single senior military figure who saw anything but merit in a thorough probe into the rights and wrongs.

Having stalled for as long as he could, Brown then tried to limit the inquiry's remit, only to be rebuffed by Chilcot himself. It is against this backdrop, this history of foreign policy flip-flop and indecision, that Brown will be questioned by the inquiry team.

Brown had hoped that, with the passage of time, voters would have "moved on" from Iraq. Blair's defiant display before the committee a month ago suggested that the wounds are still very deep. One Prime Minister stands accused of sins of commission. But what of his successor's sins of omission?

John Kampfner's 'Freedom for Sale' has just been published by Simon & Schuster