John Rentoul: Brown puts a tick by War and moves on

The Prime Minister has moved his campaign on a notch by appearing before Chilcot and visiting Afghanistan

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Gordon Brown's reputation as a tactician was modestly enhanced last week. By his appearance at the Iraq inquiry and his trip to Afghanistan, he has ensured that Tony Blair's foreign adventures will not be election issues. The idea that Brown would rather not give his evidence before the election was always predicated on anti-war assumptions. Namely that the purpose of the inquiry is to dig out the secrets of why Britain "really" joined in the invasion of Iraq, and to humiliate and embarrass those responsible as a substitute for legal proceedings, which are not possible despite endless denunciations of an "illegal" war.

The anti-war fantasies that preceded Brown's evidence vanished like morning mist as soon as the witness started rumbling on. One fantasy was that he would complain that Blair had kept him in the dark about the war, misled him about the strength of the intelligence case and that he was still pretty sore about it. Another, not quite compatible, fantasy was that Brown would be forced to admit that he had refused to sign the cheques, knowing full well that soldiers would therefore be sent into battle with the equivalent of dustbin lids for armour and Trabants for transport. The third delusion was that he would admit that the British had mishandled the deal that handed Basra to the local militias in September 2007, by which time he was Prime Minister. All those activists and journalists drawing up The Questions that Gordon Brown Must Answer were bound to be disappointed, albeit less so than when they did the same thing before Blair's appearance.

Whenever required, Brown has delivered full support for the Iraq invasion and 100 per cent loyalty to Blair in his judgements. He did it on the eve of the vote in the House of Commons that authorised military action. He did it a week before polling day in the last election campaign. And he did it last week. Each time, the formal robustness of the words was qualified by the long silences in between, but the idea that he might give voice to the words that everyone reads into those silences remains a figment of anti-war wish-fulfilment. Thus he said on Friday that it was "the right decision and made for the right reasons". That is the thing about collective Cabinet responsibility. Even if you want to have a go at Blair for undermining cabinet government, the principle of collective responsibility still applies: if you didn't resign then, you cannot pick and choose now. Although at one point Brown did try to have it both ways by saying: "We have learnt lessons from the informality of the former procedures."

However, collective responsibility could have been useful to Brown when it came to defending himself against the charge that he had failed to provide the armed forces with the money they needed to fight in two theatres at once. He could argue that defence spending is decided by the Government as a whole, and that ultimately Tony Blair as Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury was responsible for the totals agreed. But of course he didn't want to do that. Just as Blair likes to present the Iraq decision in particular as his sole and lonely responsibility, so Brown liked to present decisions about money as his personal prerogative.

So proud is he, and so sure of his better understanding of the dispute with Ministry of Defence mandarins over "resource budgeting", that Brown did not feel the need to hide behind Cabinet responsibility for defence spending. The overall budget was increasing, he said on Friday, and if he had let the MoD get away with "exploiting" the new accounting rules it would have cost 3p in the pound on income tax. The committee members looked like the student in the cartoon who puts his hand up and asks to be excused on the grounds that his "head is full", and moved on.

They moved on to the one episode for which Brown was responsible as Prime Minister, and from which lessons might be learned, namely the shameful handover of Basra to the Jaish al-Mahdi, known as the Mahdi army or to British soldiers as "the Jam". Basra had to be rescued by the Iraqi national army, sent from Baghdad by Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, with American advisers, in an operation called the Charge of the Knights. Brown said mildly that "in an ideal world it would have been better if he had consulted us" before launching the operation.

And that was that. Brown went straight to Northolt to fly to Afghanistan. A different sort of event, but the purpose was the same: to neutralise the issue during the election. If he had stuck to the original timetable, or gone for an early election, and not given evidence to Chilcot before the campaign, the anti-war media would have obsessed during it about The Questions that Gordon Brown Refused to Answer. Similarly, it might have been a minor issue that could have been used against him if Brown had not been to see the troops in Afghanistan.

This has been a campaign imperative for Team Brown ever since the last election, when the leak of the Attorney General's fuller advice was a huge story in the final week. Jack Straw thought the leak, by refocusing on Iraq, cost Labour 25 seats. Brown's decision to hold a fifth inquiry into Iraq, and his decision to give evidence last week, were both part of the big attempt to win back the three or four per cent of the electorate who deserted Labour because of the war.

And now none of the three main parties has any interest in raising either Iraq or Afghanistan during the campaign. David Cameron was Michael Howard's adviser when the Tory leader tried to wriggle out of his support for military action during the last election campaign. And Nick Clegg has decided to stick with the Afghanistan campaign for the moment. Brown has cleared the way to contest the election on the ground on which he wants to fight: jobs, schools and hospitals versus Tory cuts.

Follow John Rentoul on Twitter: www.twitter.com/johnrentoul

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