Matthew Norman: It will take more than Chilcot to nail Campbell

As the warm-up man for Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell was perfect
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The Independent Online

He did not impress me as a witness in whom I could feel 100 per cent confidence, he was not wholly convincing or satisfactory, and he was less than completely open and frank.

These are not my words about Alastair Campbell's appearance before Sir John Chilcot's inquiry yesterday, but those of judge Sir Maurice Drake in the 1996 malicious falsehood case brought against him by Tory MP Rupert Allason. They seem doubly apt today. For one thing Mr Allason's lively joint career as both politician and spy writer offered, with the hindsight to which Mr Campbell yearningly referred yesterday, a tantalising hint of the dangers in store when politics and spookery go to bed together. And for another, Mr Campbell remains anything but a wholly convinc... well, whatever the above judicialese for downright bloody liar was.

Nothing original in that analysis, you may think, and you would of course be right. Pontificating ponces like me have been calling Mr Campbell a liar for even longer than he has been blaming us – as he often did yesterday: it was the media wot screwed it all up; us and the French – for poisoning the well of purist political debate he strove mightily to protect.

Then again there was nothing thrillingly original in anything he had to say as by and large he trotted out his lines with the practised ease of one who has done so before, and boned up hard for this latest viva. On the surface he did it pretty well, holding his temper, smiling when possible, and treating his interrogators to the contemptuous patience of the prissy boarding school headmistress whom a pair of sporadically donned and curiously effete spectacles made him resemble.

As warm-up man for Mr Tony Blair, in fact, he was perfect. Admittedly he was fairly dull for the first segment of the cross-examination (a guy in the front row of the audience snoozed), but so was the subject matter (regime change vs WMD). Both sprung to life in the second half, however, when he provided enough entertainment to keep the crowd amused, but not so much as to risk the headline act disappointing us later this month. For all that, the poor soul was rattled once or twice. And he is a pitiable creature, this gaunt and haunted dry drunk, this self-destructed alpha timebomb.

Sympathy for the psychotic propagandist who did such incalculable damage to national life – denuding the Civil Service of its independence, making outright falsehoods the currency of Downing Street where half-truths and omissions had been the coinage before, and unwittingly taking the Samson Option to bring the temple roof down on himself as well as the BBC – doesn't come easy. It's unforgivably petty, but I exult in every Burnley defeat knowing it will ruin his weekend. He's a right little monster, and no mistake. But he's a sad and vulnerable little monster, and, however nerveless he appeared, he was suffering yesterday. A couple of times he even gave himself away.

Now I don't know if any of Sir John, the admirably dogged Sir Lawrence Freedman, the not so dogged Sir Martin Gilbert, the reticent Sir Roderick Lyne or the sensationally useless Baroness Ushar Prashar moonlights as a professional poker player. On balance, I'd guess not.

But if so, they'd be aware that the most obvious tell of all is someone touching their nose for no apparent reason. If there's no scratching, wiping or other practical purpose to the nostril-work, invariably it's a bluff.

Mr Campbell needlessly touched that aquiline hooter a couple of times, most notably when Sir Lawrence moved to those legendary 45 Minutes. He'd been spouting a fair amount of gibberish from the start, to be frank. He had, for example, made the false claim that the policy of containing Saddam was failing by the time of the pivotal Camp David meeting between Messrs Bush and Blair in 2002, and told the whopp... excuse me, been less than wholly convincing in denying that this was when Mr Blair promised the President his undying martial fealty. But he'd said it all with the effortless assurance that leads people to trust in, or at least give the benefit of the doubt to, spoken words that would strike them as preposterous on the page.

Once Sir Lawrence started with the dodgy dossier, however, and particularly the "overtly political" foreword – shorn of caveats and signed by the PM himself – of which Mr Campbell's BF Sir John Scarlett wisely washed his hands until they bled, he started to struggle. The declarations of his own rectitude became more strident, the attacks on a venal media more deranged. If only hacks had been timelocked in the deferential age when questioning a PM's vague but forceful assertions about intelligence material was unimaginable, ran what passed for his argument, none of this mess would have happened.

The non-existence of the WMDs and the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the phoney war that ensued seemed irrelevant. Such banalities have no place in the mind of this perverted Marshall McLuhan. To him the media is always the message, and the real war the one still rumbling between his own monstrous ego and those, led by the Andrew Gilligan, who dared to doubt him and his master in the first place.

And yet, and yet ... where we graciously extend to Mr Blair the catch-all sociopath defence that for him the act of intoning a thought transforms that thought into the truth, Mr Campbell knows a lie when he speaks it. And we know he knows, and he knows we know he knows. Put another way, to adapt the late Hylda Baker, it's nose you know.

The publishing of the dossier (and this you have to love) was an exercise in "openness". If the cretins of the press chose to fixate on its juiciest claims, and write "Saddam can attack British nationals in 45 minutes" and "He could nuke us all in a year" headlines, well, headlines were never of the faintest concern to this important strategic thinker. The fact that Scarlett emailed him to ask what headlines he wanted the dossier to generate was so irrelevant that he couldn't even recall what, if anything, he replied.

It was at this stage that I succumbed to the obvious fantasy, in which a team of SAS stormtroopers burst through a hole in the wall, Iranian Embassy style, and pumped him full of a truth serum, or waterboarded him, or put him on a Gulfstream to Syria in pursuit of a confession.

"I don't know what more I can say?" he said, insisting that the insertion of the phrase "beyond doubt" regarding Saddam's fearsome weapons capability was "a perfectly fair philosophical point" because – and you'd need to be quite the scholar of logic to spot the flaw here – no one ever said for sure that Saddam didn't have WMD.

What more Mr Campbell could say, you felt, was "it's a fair cop, guv'nor, you've got me bang to rights". But that isn't how this weird and unending danse macabre is danced. So all he could say, as if no more need ever be said, is that when Mr Blair told the Commons and the country that beyond doubt Saddam was a serious, credible and current threat, the PM believed it with all his heart. And then he touched his nose.