The inquiry into the Iraq war will be free to apportion blame after all, the Government announced yesterday in its latest climbdown over the terms of the investigation.
When Gordon Brown announced the inquiry last week, he insisted it would be held in private and that it would not attribute blame because the aim was to learn lessons for the future. Since then the Government has been forced into a string of concessions, and now admits that as much of the inquiry as possible will be heard in public.
David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said yesterday: "It is not an inquiry that has been set up to establish civil or criminal liability, it is not a judicial inquiry. Everything beyond that is within its remit, it can praise or blame whoever it likes, it is free to write its own report at every stage."
After a heated six-and-a-half hour debate called by the Tories, the Government survived a Labour back-bench rebellion last night but its majority of 62 was cut to 39. After a major backtrack on its original plans, only 19 Labour MPs rebelled against the Government in the vote
The Commons rejected by 299 votes to 260 an opposition motion saying the inquiry should be held in public "wherever possible" and its team should be wider and more diverse.
MPs approved by 305 votes to 251 a government motion calling for "as much of the proceedings as possible in public without compromising national security or the inquiry's ability to report thoroughly or without delay".
Mr Miliband said Sir John Chilcot, the inquiry chairman, was examining ways in which witnesses could give evidence on oath, another demand by critics of the original announcement.
In the Government's first admission that it had bowed to criticism of its proposals, Mr Miliband said: "We have listened on these points." He said former Prime Minister Tony Blair had said he was prepared to be questioned in public and had dismissed as a "canard" the suggestion he had opposed the move.
Today's Spectator magazine claims Lord Mandelson extracted a promise of a private inquiry to shield Mr Blair as the price for helping Mr Brown see off the attempt by Labour MPs to oust him. The magazine says : "Brown was instructed to ensure that the members of the inquiry would, in the words of one official, 'not stir the horses'."
William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, described Downing Street's handling of the inquiry as a "monumental mess." The Government's series of U-turns were as "painful as watching a learner driver do a six-point turn having started the wrong way down the motorway." Mr Hague said: "The Government's handling of this issue means that as things currently stand the inquiry starts its work with far less credibility in the eyes of the public or Parliament than it should really have had."
The senior Tory MP Michael Mates, a member of the 2004 Butler inquiry into the intelligence failings before the war, said regime change in Iraq "loomed very large" during legal arguments at the top of the Government in the run up to the invasion and that he had seen papers circulating between ministers that would make people's "eyes water".
Several Labour MPs criticised the disarray over the investigation and urged ministers to end the confusion over how much of the inquiry would be heard in public. Labour's Andrew Mackinlay said: "The problem is the Prime Minister. The fact is that he doesn't understand that he doesn't understand."
Private or public? Anatomy of a U-turn
June 15 Gordon Brown announces inquiry into the Iraq war, saying it will sit in private.
June 17 The Independent reveals that senior military commanders, including the former head of the Army Sir Mike Jackson, back public hearings.
June 18 The Independent discloses that Brown is considering a U-turn. The story is initially denied by Downing Street but then confirmed when it releases a letter from Mr Brown asking the chairman Sir John Chilcot to consider some public sessions.
June 22 Sir John tells Mr Brown it is "essential" that as much of the inquiry as possible should be in public. He will also bring in advisers on military, legal and international development and reconstruction and will examine how a formal undertaking can be given by witnesses that their contributions will be "complete, truthful and accurate."
Yesterday The Foreign Secretary David Miliband admits the inquiry can apportion blame, contradicting Mr Brown's original statement.
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