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Steve Richards: Brown was in his element buried in detail of policy


Gordon Brown's appearance in front of the Iraq Inquiry confirmed what we already knew. Brown supported the war. If he had opposed it, he would have prevented Tony Blair from going ahead. As Chancellor, Brown worked round the clock during Labour's second term to block any major policy initiative from No 10 which he did not support.

He made sure Blair's original chaotically anarchic plans for foundation hospitals were revised. He blocked Blair's attempts to revive the debate on joining the euro and almost defeated the introduction of top-up fees for university students. He made no move to prevent Blair going to war.

As he told the inquiry, he had several private briefings on the pre-war intelligence, more than the rest of the Cabinet, on the wrong assumption that he would be prime minister soon after the war. Like Blair, he chose to believe the intelligence, although in effect he admitted to the inquiry that both of them read too much into these erratic surveys. Yesterday Brown was never going to distance himself from the actual decision, partly because he could not do so without looking pathetically weak, but also, at the time at least, he genuinely supported the war.

He told the inquiry he did not know about the letters Blair had written to President Bush in which the Prime Minister appeared to make sweeping commitments well in advance. Jack Straw and Alastair Campbell had known about them. I have no doubt Brown was telling the truth. Although he supported the war he did so at a distance. His relationship with Blair at the time was dire. Blair would not have wanted to involve Brown too much in every detail, policy terrain over which he strode without much interference from the Treasury. Then, Brown was so preoccupied with domestic battles that he had no wish to be engaged in every twist and turn in the build-up to war in Iraq.

The area where Brown was potentially vulnerable was over defence spending, his direct responsibility. The inquiry did not lay a glove on him. In retrospect, it was never going to. Brown is always confident when dealing with statistics and he came armed with several to show that defence spending had risen. He acknowledged the rise was not as much as defence chiefs had wanted but that "was always the case with every department in a public spending round". There were times when Brown sought to shift the blame: His job was to raise the money. It was up to others to ensure the cash was spent on the right military equipment. Some defence chiefs are convinced of his culpability at least in terms of adequate provision but, like all public-spending rows, this is an argument without decisive resolution. A Chancellor makes his case. They make theirs.

Brown appeared untroubled throughout. In some ways this was his perfect forum, intense discussion about detailed policy for five hours accompanied by polite questioning. The exchanges will not help him politically, but he might have tripped up badly. He did not do so.

Iraq continues to make an impact on the way the Blair/ Brown era is perceived, not least by disillusioned Labour voters. But Brown's appearance yesterday will have no impact on the election either way. That is the best he could have hoped for.