Two separate parliamentary investigations have sought answers to the biggest question of them all: Why did Britain go to war against Iraq? A third inquiry under Lord Hutton struggles with a darkly narrower remit, almost comical in the context of the war. The Foreign Affairs Committee has given its verdict. Today the Intelligence Committee will publish its report. Lord Hutton with his absurd brief matters much more than either of them.
Will the Intelligence Committee conclude that Alastair Campbell was innocent of "sexing up" the weapons dossier against the wishes of the Joint Intelligence Committee? Almost certainly it will. Will Geoff Hoon, already viewed by many of his cabinet colleagues as the inevitable and necessary ministerial sacrifice, come in for more criticism? Quite possibly. Hoon is not having a good post-war.
The two parliamentary investigations should have been decisive. In the absence of an independent inquiry they alone were addressing directly the origins of the war. Yet however many beads of sweat appear on the normally unflappable visage of the Defence Secretary, today's report will not be the end of the matter by any means, not while Lord Hutton has more work to do.
The inquiries undertaken by MPs have acquired a hopelessly dated air, not because of the issues they have addressed but the way they have gone about addressing them. The Foreign Affairs Committee with its puny powers, inept questioning and misguided obsession with the presentation of the case for war, highlighted the limitations of parliamentary inquiries. The Intelligence Committee with its convenient secretiveness - not all of it necessary - and the messy leaks in advance of publication reinforce a sense that MPs have been left behind by the events of the summer.
The inquiry by Lord Hutton means that today's report is no more than the hors d'oeuvre before the feast. His task is to investigate the circumstances leading to the death of David Kelly, a marginal issue. Not only is this an extremely limited remit, it is one that is impossible to meet fully. As I have argued before, none of the external factors that we know about provide an adequate explanation for such a drastic act.
What has changed everything is the way that the inquiry has conducted itself. From closed government we have had complete openness, every document relating to the Kelly affair paraded on the inquiry's website. Today's report from the Intelligence Committee epitomises the pre-Hutton attachment to darkness. It comes to us from nowhere, after Prime Ministerial scrutiny. There is nothing necessarily sinister in this process. It is just that we don't know for sure. We cannot see the equivalent of the e-mails and other documents published by Hutton.
Of the three investigations, I predict that, in the longer term, it is the Hutton inquiry that will do the Government least harm. Mr Blair might have expected that a neutered Foreign Affairs Committee and a secret Intelligence Committee would be innocuous, while the apparent revelations on the Hutton inquiry website would be a catastrophe for Downing Street. Instead, it was the powerless Foreign Affairs Committee that wandered into marginal terrain, focusing obsessively on how the Government prepared and presented its weapons dossier.
The Committee's perverse emphasis started the whole sequence that led to Dr Kelly's suicide and the Hutton inquiry. It was the Committee that reduced the origins of the war into a contest between the BBC and Campbell. The darkness of the Intelligence Committee has also harmed Mr Blair. I do not believe that the leaks of the report in yesterday's Evening Standard came from Downing Street, but I bet most voters do, eroding further their trust in the Government.
There is no need for leaks relating to the Hutton inquiry. It is all there, the forensic questioning from the hearings and the mountain of evidence from the Government and the BBC. If the Hutton inquiry had been held in secret, the leaks would have almost killed off the Government by now. Leaks seem sinister, with their implication that hidden information is being exposed. On the Hutton website, nothing is hidden.
What is shocking when the documents are presented in their original form is how un-shocking they are. The single spectacular surprise is their breathtaking novelty. The substance is almost reassuring. It is a relief that some Downing Street officials raised questions about the accuracy of the intelligence. Thank goodness that some intelligence officers wondered whether their material was being presented properly by an increasingly desperate Downing Street. How unsurprising that Blair and Campbell worried neurotically about the presentation of the dossier when they were trying to convince a sceptical public about the need to go to war.
How understandable also that when Dr Kelly came forward as the possible source of an inaccurate story, at a time when the BBC was insisting on its accuracy, that Blair and Campbell wanted the information to reach a wider audience. None of the documents on the Hutton website justify the war or its chaotic aftermath, but they illuminate and humanise a story that would otherwise be obscured by dark mythology.
Hutton has not only dated the parliamentary inquiries. He has shown that governments can reveal themselves more fully without imploding. Quite a lot of the time secrecy is counter-productive for ministers and officials as well as for those trying to make sense of it all from the outside. We are conditioned to be shocked at the discovery that ministers disagree in private, partly because in public they pretend to agree on everything. This is one of the reasons for the disconnection between the voters and their political leaders.
Take the example of financing universities. In private, senior ministers have agonised over two daunting challenges, making up the cash shortfall after decades of cutbacks and expanding the number of students getting the chance to go to university. There have been almighty rows. In public they all express an apparently complacent unity. Would we think the worse of them if we were to discover that one disagreed with another about how to raise the cash? Once the novelty of openness had worn off, we would have a greater sense of the dilemmas facing ministers.
Within days of the 1997 election, Mr Blair signalled the limits of his reforming zeal by scrapping plans for a wide-ranging Freedom of Information Act. A couple of years later a much more timid set of measures were implemented. The Hutton inquiry has not only dated the investigations of the two parliamentary committees, but the secrecy that afflicts and undermines British politics the rest of the time. The Government would be the beneficiary of a proper Freedom of Information Act. For his own sake, Mr Blair should introduce one before he seems as outdated as the MPs supposedly investigating why he took the country to war.Reuse content