Thanks to friend and foe alike for helping yesterday go by
Posted on 13 January 2010 | 8:01am
First of all thanks to the friends and also total strangers who offered support in various ways yesterday, not least across the web.
Fair to say there was loads of the usual abuse that comes whenever anyone goes out and defends British policy on Iraq, but there was also a big expression of the counter view, which rarely gets airtime but which is there nonetheless. The Labour Party’s media monitoring department also told me that even on the main websites normally totally hostile there was a good smattering of support.
Among the private messages I got in advance were some from former Iraqi exiles I mentioned in my evidence, some of whom are now back in Iraq and say despite all the problems their country without Saddam is a better place and one where democracy is beginning alongside, by their standards, normal life.
I am amazed too how many people, though they know I don’t do God, sent me passages from the Bible. As I walked through the media scrum on the way in, and on the way out, and listened to some of the overblown and agenda driven commentary, I was glad to have read in the morning an email with Psalm 56 attached … ‘What can mortal man do to me?’ it asks ‘All day long they twist my words, they are always plotting to harm me. They conspire, they lurk, they watch my steps, eager to take my life…’ I never detected a death plot among the British media, but the rest of it sums up the Westminster lobby to a tee.
And no, I’m still not doing God, but as Neil Kinnock once said to me, I sometimes think it’s a shame we’re atheists, because some of the best lines are in the good book.
It was my fourth Iraq-related inquiry, after the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into ‘the case for war,’ the Intelligence and Security Committee on the use of intelligence, and the Hutton Inquiry into the death of David Kelly.
This one was in many ways harder to prepare for, partly because of the passage of time, partly because I am no longer in government, though I did have access to papers when preparing, but mainly because though I had been given some indication of the areas to be covered, I knew I could and in all probability would be asked about anything and everything.
I was well served by the Cabinet Office team which is in charge of the archive, and spent part of the Christmas break reading official papers. But a combination of man flu and the feeling at times of being overwhelmed by the sheer volume means I did most of my preparation at home. The inquiry website was a huge help in that I could read the evidence of previous witnesses, which helped not only with memory but also with deciding which papers it would then be helpful to see. Then finally I compiled a list of main points I wanted to make, and a detailed chronological narrative.
My book was helpful too, in that there were reflections and detail in there – as was clear from the questioning – which was not necessarily in the archive. The defence chiefs’ early emphasis on aftermath planning, for example, my exchanges with Ambassador Bremer about the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, also specific observations made by Tony Blair and other leaders and ministers at key moments.
There were several references in my diary too to private notes sent by TB to George Bush, so why on earth the media were presenting this as some great new revelation says more about their addiction to the whooshery of ‘breaking news’ journalism than it does about the diplomatic exchanges at the time. A quick flick through last night took me to Page 684. Bear with me.
TB was working on a long note for Bush on the plane, and I left him to it and had a long chat with Jack, going through all the difficult areas. He was worried just how far out on a limb TB was pushing himself, but was still totally on board for where we were. The main message in TB’s note, when you boiled it down, was that there was a lot of support for the aims of the campaign, and we totally believed the policy was right, but there was real concern at the way the US put over their views and intentions, and that rested in people’s fears about their perceived unilateralism. It was a long and detailed note, going through all the difficult issues and questions, but that was the blunt political message in there. He was urging him to do more to rebuild with Germany, then Russia, then France, and saying he should seize the moment for a new global agenda, one to unite the world rather than divide it. He said that a distorted view of the US was clouding everything – look at how much cynicism there was at their efforts in the Middle East. We had to break that down. Why had Mexico and Chile gone the other way? Why did so much of Europe? It was about other things too. In the end he wrote a 12 page note that was both subtle and blunt at the same time. It was a good piece of work and if Bush took it on board would have a good effect.
Then on the next day
GWB had clearly read TB’s note and was going through it virtually line by line. He was fairly strong on MEPP. He said he knew there would have to be a reckoning in their relationships with others. He was on pretty confident form. He seemed a lot more on top of the detail and in the discussion on the complexities of the Arab world seemed less one dimensional than before. TB’s note was fairly detached but saying that in essence the US had a choice about what it wanted to do with its power. They had to face up to that choice. The power was a given but how it was used was a series of choices.
There are plenty of other references. I assume all these people parading as experts on me, on TB, on Iraq, have read The Blair Years. Quite a useful source I’d have thought. If not, it is still available in all good book shops and online. Oh, and I will shortly be launching a scheme to use the diaries to raise funds for the Labour Party.
I also caught some of the discussion about the ‘revelation’ that TB spoke regularly to GB about Iraq policy. The commentary on this was even more ludicrous. GB was chancellor at the time, you may recall. He was a member of the war cabinet. Again, The Blair Years records a morning when he takes me aside to complain about the way TB allowed ministers to drone on too much and show division in front of the military.
I caught one BBC guy saying there were serious electoral implications from me saying GB supported the policy. ‘Prime minister who was member of war cabinet at time of invasion supported invasion’. Shock horror. Not.
I would also point out that every aspect of this controversial decision had been played out at great volume and in great detail prior to the 2005 election, which we won comfortably.
I have always believed – on this and on most parts of the Labour record – that if we are strong and confident in defending the decisions made, and promoting the benefits that flowed from them, all the while clear that perfection never comes and mistakes can be made, that is an essential component of a winning strategy going forward.
A small point to clear up. You may have seen my phone pinged with a text when I sat down for the second session. I had remembered to turn it off at the start of the day, but forgot to do so again after using it in the break. Sir Lawrie Freedman asked if it was TB. It wasn’t. It was a football manager who has been feeding in a few thoughts to assist Burnley in the search for a new manager. Not Sir Alex, though he has been helpful as he always is to other clubs in the kind of difficulty you get into when a manager walks out mid-season. Amid his help, mind, has been the occasional reminder that we are playing United on Saturday, Burnley haven’t got a manager and his lot have gone to Qatar to prepare because it’s too cold at Carrington! How the other half live.
I will give the papers a miss today, knowing that most will follow their own agenda pretty much regardless of anything said yesterday, and I didn’t see the news last night because we went to see The Misanthrope. I loved it. Bit of a split in the family about Keira Knightley but I thought she and Damian Lewis were terrific. And I could not help thinking that she would be good as Maya, the heroine of my novel out in a few weeks. A couple of film-makers have already expressed an interest and I would ask them to note this match made in heaven. Kate W would be good too, mind. And can Penelope Cruz do a passable West London lower middle class accent that changes with fame? Maybe not. Hardback copy in the post to Keira.
Thanks again to the friends and foes alike who helped yesterday go by, with a special word for Mark Bennett, my former assistant in Number 10 and later at the Labour party, who put together that big blue briefing folder you may have seen, and my son Rory who made sure I didn’t leave it anywhere and kept me amused and calm during the breaks. I’d been expecting one break, not the three that materialised in a longer session than anticipated. But I feel I made the points I wanted to, and I hope I helped the inquiry with its continuing research and analysis.