Steve Richards: A cloth-eared Prime Minister and a pantomime of disunity

Such clumsy handling of the Iraq war inquiry reveals the bewildered weakness of Brown

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Two unrelated sagas from recent days shine more light on the bewildered weakness of Gordon Brown and his Government than the amateurish coup that almost took place a fortnight ago. The first is the strange tale of Brown's clumsy, convoluted handling of the inquiry into the war in Iraq, an investigation that was to be held in secret, but now in parts might not be. The second is the conflicting speeches delivered by the Chancellor Alistair Darling and the Governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King at the annual Mansion House gathering on Wednesday night. What a rare pantomime of disunity for their audience. In effect the performance was along these lines. Darling: "Big risk taking banks have their place!" King: "Oh no, they do not!"

Both events have much in common. They reflect the timidity of a tired government burdened by its past and fearing for its future. The attempted coup against Brown was pathetic and shapeless. This week's messy sequence has substance and definition.

From a purely practical point of view there is no need for an inquiry into the war. We know all there is to know. The amount of information in the public arena is vast and a lot of it is illuminating raw material. The original intelligence, not merely the controversial dossier, is on the internet. Tony Blair told me that he wished he had made all the intelligence available at the time thereby avoiding the rows about whether or not the Government sexed it up. Anyway it is there now.

In addition the Downing Street emails published on the site of the Hutton inquiry reveal in vivid detail the tortured state of mind of all those working for Blair in the run up to war. Robin Cook's diaries and Claire Short's memoirs explain what happened in cabinet. A range of books based on a mountain of private conversations here and in the US offer definitive accounts.

The announcement of another inquiry is therefore largely symbolic. Handled properly it might have conveyed a sense that the Government is willing to learn from the trauma of war. The announcement could also have presented Brown with an opportunity to demonstrate that he is serious about being more open. Instead he opted at first for the apparent safety of the secret inquiry. As a result even some pro-war Labour MPs despaired. One strong supporter of the war complained to me Brown had a "tin ear" for these issues. Meanwhile David Cameron, although leading a shadow cabinet that includes some of the war's most fervent supporters, neatly called for a more open inquiry, artfully championing sceptics of the conflict and those who want a more open style of politics.

In an eerie echo of the post-war choreography, Cameron is joined by the military chiefs and the former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Butler, who speak once more for the doubters. As a result Brown changed tack yesterday and suggested parts of the Inquiry could be held in public after all. He was too late, responding to events rather than shaping them.

I am told Brown did give some thought to opening up parts of the inquiry from the beginning, but in the end he followed the advice of Alastair Campbell and Blair's other most senior ally in No 10, Jonathan Powell, in opting for an investigation behind closed doors. Both Powell and Campbell were involved in discussions that preceded the decision. In particular Campbell warned that parts of the media would become obsessed once more in the run up to an election.

Brown also worried that an open inquiry would be seen as a snub to Blair. He had a long conversation with Blair last week. I would be amazed if this subject did not come up. As Brown is currently a prisoner to the Blairite wing, the internal politics of his party and his own precarious position played a part in his original decision.

Campbell had a point. The BBC is never knowingly understaffed and in a spirit of over excitement would have set up an Inquiry Unit with special editors, producers and correspondents if it had been fully in the open. But the issue is not as highly charged as it was during the Hutton investigation in the summer of 2003. Because we know more than we think we do the media interest would have faded. Brown took much more of a hit by opting for secrecy. He was trapped by his own cautious instincts formed in the defeats of the 1980s, the old battles with Blair, the fear of reviving them now and of course most fundamentally the government's decision to go to war, one from which Labour has never recovered.

Cautious timidity and the past play their part in the public divergence between Darling and King. The relationship between the two is complex. It began terribly with differences over the Northern Rock crisis, but then they worked together fairly well during the even sweatier dramas last autumn. On Wednesday night they moved apart again, delivering speeches that highlighted different approaches to the banks.

Even now Brown and Darling are not sure whether King makes his moves with the scheming calculations of an amateur politician or the blundering naivety of an academic. I am told immediately after King caused mayhem last March by warning against a second stimulus, while Brown was still advocating one, he phoned up the prime ministerial entourage in the US with a sweetly innocent tone to discuss the winner of a children's art contest launched in the build-up to the G20 summit in London: Brilliant chutzpah or a lack of guile?

Whatever his motives, King exposed the weak frailty of the Government's position in relation to the banks. Scared of appearing to intervene too much Darling gave the banks another lecture partly about the need for robust self-regulation. King was more daring. It is quite something for a government to make the cautious King seem like the crusading radical, but he was the speaker who put it bluntly: "If some banks are thought to be too big to fail then... they are too big".

Perhaps coincidentally this places King closer to the position of the Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne. King has his second term as governor. Labour is unlikely to get a fourth. He can afford to be at odds with his Chancellor.

Would King have been so publicly defiant if this was a government at the start of its rule, working with a Chancellor with years to go in the post? Would Darling have adopted such a light regulatory touch if there was no fear of appearing to seek 1970s style solutions? Would Brown have opted for a secret inquiry if he had won an election on his own and broken free from Blair and his own past as the angry, vengeful king in waiting? Instead he clings to the crown dependent for survival on Blair's old friend Lord Mandelson. He cannot risk alienating any more followers of the former leader.

A long-serving government cannot escape the past and a sense that it has no future.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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