The Sketch: We're all responsible, cries Tony, but at least I was only following advice

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair's new voice will please his admirers. It's the polar opposite of the passionate, soaring voice with which he told us Saddam was going to blow us to 45 kinds of buggery. This one is a little high, a little shy, a little vulnerable; it's also much more breathy than usual and really very convincing. It's the sort of voice Hugh Grant might have used to explain what was really going on in that car off Hollywood Boulevard (they were comparing rival translations of Catullus). Hugh Grant is our finest romantic comedy lead since Cary Grant, and Mr Blair has some equivalent status in his own chosen genre.

Tony Blair's new voice will please his admirers. It's the polar opposite of the passionate, soaring voice with which he told us Saddam was going to blow us to 45 kinds of buggery. This one is a little high, a little shy, a little vulnerable; it's also much more breathy than usual and really very convincing. It's the sort of voice Hugh Grant might have used to explain what was really going on in that car off Hollywood Boulevard (they were comparing rival translations of Catullus). Hugh Grant is our finest romantic comedy lead since Cary Grant, and Mr Blair has some equivalent status in his own chosen genre.

Earlier, Lord Butler had produced a report detailing numberless inadequacies of the intelligence-gathering process which, by his account, has been a game of Chinese whispers in a pub full of drunks.

But if mistakes were made, Lord Butler explained, they were collective ones. Everyone was responsible so nobody was to blame. Hang on, you want to say, if everyone was responsible why doesn't everyone resign? You haven't got the hang of this yet, I fear. If you've got a systemic, collective failure, no one is to blame unless they work for the BBC.

But (you want to press this to the point of rudeness) if there was collective responsibility, shouldn't the person at the top answer for it? Well, so the Prime Minister did. He told the House: "I take full personal responsibility." It was one of those sentences that stopped before it finished. The complete sentence would have gone: "I take full personal responsibility, so shut up."

Michael Howard put in what may be his last great parliamentary performance. He carefully compared what the intelligence was telling Mr Blair (evidence is patchy, sporadic, limited) and how Mr Blair translated that to the public ("I am in no doubt the threat is serious and current.")

Mr Howard argued that this fatally undermined the Prime Minister's credibility and if circumstances repeated themselves, nobody would believe what he was saying. The Labour benches roared so loudly they must have been wounded. Mr Blair's defence is this: Some people think the threat Saddam posed justified war, and others think it didn't. It's an argument that could go either way, so let each side stop disrespecting the other.

But that's not the argument. This is the argument: uncertain intelligence was repackaged in tabloid terms to harry and hurry and worry the British into a war it didn't really want to fight. This is so obviously true it can't be denied. So of course it is denied. Maybe "the Government" didn't do this. Strictly speaking, Alastair Campbell was never part of the Government, after all.

Time was, though, that Mr Blair the barrister used Mr Campbell as his solicitor to preserve his integrity (the technical term is "deniability"). It was Mr Campbell who stripped out the caveats and cautions for the September dossier in order that the Prime Minister could ululate his passionate certainties in the House. It's the reason why Mr Blair can continue to say, "I was acting in good faith" and keep a straight face.

Without wanting to sensationalise the argument with philosophy, for a prime minister to say, "I did it on advice" occupies the same ethical category as "I was only obeying orders".

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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