Thursday 25 June 2009

For Iraq inquiry anoraks

Alastair Campbell blogs that he has received an apology and a donation to a leukemia charity established to remember Henry Hodge over the claim in this week's Spectator cover story that he leant on Lord Butler over his inquiry into the war.

John Kampfner's Blair's Wars is an important book on the high politics of Iraq (and a rather more nuanced book on the range of interventions than the title and marketing may imply). John Rentoul teases Kampfner with having changed his mind about whether Blair lied, as opposed to being wrong about the WMD.

But, perhaps rather less consequentially, the Spectator piece also gets the chronology of Brown's inquiry wrong in inventing one more u-turn than is merited (which hardly seems necessary in the circumstances).

In 2007, as he carried out his putsch, Brown was keen that the war formed a backdrop for Labour MPs’ discontent with Blair. He promised a new inquiry, with the implication that, this time, it would get to the truth. Once in power, he insisted that such an investigation should take place only after British forces had quit Basra.

But Brown did not promise an Iraq inquiry before becoming Prime Minister (though I can't vouch for what he may have said privately).

All Brown had said when asked about pressure for an inquiry by September 2007 was "there will be a time to discuss the question".

His first public statement in support of the principle of an inquiry was not until March 2008, at the same time that he wrote that it should not happen until British troops were out.

This was in a letter replying to my call for an inquiry, reported on the front page of The Independent in March 2008.

Curiously, instead of accepting the plaudits for this widely welcomed move, Downing Street then claimed what Kampfner now claims, with the PMOS even briefing that "there is nothing new in the letter to the Fabian Society" though as Andrew Grice wrote at the time, this was not the case.

In his letter to the Fabian Society committing himself to an investigation, Brown went further than he has done before, which is to be welcomed. Strangely, his official spokesman has been playing down Brown's words, saying that nothing had changed since he spelled out his policy last September. In fact, the PM made no such commitment then, saying only: "There will be a time to discuss the question." Brown still seems reluctant to address the Iraq issue head on, acting as if he wishes it would go away - or, perhaps, that everyone would just accept it was "Blair's war" and leave him out of it.

The reason I had written to Brown ahead of the fifth anniversary was that neither he, as Prime Minister, nor David Miliband as Foreign Secretary had publicly supported calls for an inquiry, though Margaret Beckett had done so in the last few days of the Blair government.

Indeed, the Foreign Secretary had ducked the question of an inquiry, and perhaps kicked it into the long grass, in a Fabian interview ahead of our January 2008 conference, saying "“I am obsessed with the next five years in Iraq, not the last five years in Iraq. And I think that the best ‘inquiry’ is putting the best brains to think about how to make sure the next five years in Iraq get that combination of political reconstruction, economic reconstruction and security improvement that are so essential.”

This had been reported just after Christmas 2007 under the headline 'Government rules out Iraq inquiry and while I felt that the question remained open I wrote to the PM partly because we seemed to have moved the agenda back, not forward.

There have been too many twists and turns on the road to an inquiry, though we seem to getting to a sensible place in the end. And there are no end of conspiracy theories to explain it. Might the truth be simpler - that Iraq remains the jinx of British politics.

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