The Sketch: Time was called – and Blair breathed again

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The Independent Online

Is the Committee going off the boil again? They must know what Jack Straw's like but they didn't get anywhere near making him sweat.

Some years ago a group of us were at lunch with Jack, and he was asked whether he'd known if the 45-minute weapons in the dossier were battlefield munitions or missiles. This is the same pertinent question the committee had asked Geoff Hoon earlier this week. Hoon said he'd been so interested in the new claim that he'd called in officials to explicate the difference for him. They were just big guns, he was told. So he not only knew, he was happy to say he'd known.

Jack Straw's answer at that lunch was so brilliant I didn't understand a word of it and neither did anyone else. It was a full minute of jibber-jabbering pither-pother. It's what he says when he doesn't want to say anything.

How would he survive the forensic questioning of the well-regarded Roderic Lyne?

With ease. With nonchalance, in fact, because the question wasn't even put to him.

It's an error, I can't help feeling. If the Minister of War knew the truth and the Foreign Secretary knew the truth – how could the Prime Minister not know it?

Why didn't they ask Jack? Maybe they don't think it's significant. But it's one of the very few areas that Tony Blair can be trapped in something close to a lie – something so deceitful it amounts to a lie.

Straw, an urbane and attractive performer with eyes just the right side of axe murderer, made a few remarks of clarity. For Britain to have pursued a policy of regime change, he said, would have been "improper and unlawful". Roderic Lyne asked with equal clarity: "Was that the Prime Minister's view as well?"

There followed the pither-pother that says he's not going to say, uninterrupted by Lyne. For goodness sake, Lyne must know what the ex-Foreign Secretary is like – he worked for him for years. Maybe that's the problem.

There was a slightly better effort on the claim that Chirac would veto the crucial second resolution "in any circumstances". Lyne just managed to get a cross examination in during the hearing's last moments.

Chirac's remarks hadn't been official French government policy, Lyne pointed out, they'd been made in a television interview. "Did you seek clarification later?" Lyne asked, "Or did you say 'game over'?"

Jack's answer did seem to contain the admission that the British Government was relying on his own translation of Chirac's French. Lyne overtly disputed the translation. And there was indeed a "clarification" issued later by the French... but suddenly the committee had run out of time.

And once again, Tony Blair breathed more easily.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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