Saturday, January 30, 2010

Behind the bluster, Blair shifts his ground

It may have been the most long-awaited event of the political year to date – but at first sight, former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s appearance at the Iraq Inquiry yesterday was something of a non-story.

Well before he took his turn in the witness chair, we knew moreorless what we were in for – an unapologetic defence of the 2003 conflict.

And so it proved, as Mr Blair insisted he was right to remove Saddam Hussein, that there was no "covert deal" with George Bush, that intelligence was not tampered with, that Parliament was not misled, and for good measure, that he'd do it all again.

If he ever has to choose a song to play at his funeral, it will surely be Robbie Williams' ‘No Regrets.’

But it's only when you look behind the defiant words that you begin to see just how much the former Prime Minister has actually shifted his ground since 2003

Take weapons of mass destruction, for starters. The original, ostensible justification for going to war in 2003 was that Saddam had WMD, some of which were capable of being fired at strategic targets within 45 minutes.

At one press conference I attended around that time, Mr Blair expressed his "100pc confidence" that WMD would be found.

But we now learn from yesterday's evidence that what the former Prime Minister really meant by this was that Saddam merely had the "capacity" to build weapons of mass destruction.

"The decision I took - and frankly would take again - was if there was any possibility that he could develop weapons of mass destruction we should stop him,” he told yesterday’s hearing.

In other words, he didn't have them - something I don't think I can recall the former PM saying at the time.

Then there is the 45-minute claim itself. Mr Blair admits with hindsight that the claim had been misunderstood by the press that it would have been better for the government to have corrected this at the time.

As a matter of fact, former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had already conceded this point, well before the current inquiry even began

But what this amounts to is an implicit admission that the late weapons inspector Dr David Kelly was right to have raised concerns about the way the 45-minute claim had been presented in his discussions with the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan which later formed the basis of the BBC’s reports.

I don't recall hearing that either in the summer of 2003, when the Downing Street spin machine was busy hanging poor Dr Kelly out to dry.

Finally there was the new prominence given to the significance of 9/11, with Mr Blair saying his attitude to Saddam had "changed dramatically" after the terror attacks.

"I never regarded 11 September as an attack on America, I regarded it as an attack on us,” he told the inquiry.

Although the 'dodgy dossier' of 2002 had made a half-hearted attempt to draw links between al-Qaeda and Saddam, no-one took this terribly seriously, and it was not an argument that was much heard around the time of the invasion.

Perhaps the fact that he is making it now is an example of what he himself admitted in his TV interview with Fearne Britton last December – that the lack of WMD would have meant that “different arguments” had to be deployed to get us into the war.

Right at the end of yesterday’s hearing, inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot practically invited Mr Blair to utter the “R” word. His refusal finally provoked an outbreak of barracking from the hitherto well-behaved audience.

Those who hoped that yesterday’s proceedings might somehow heal the divisions of the conflict have already seen those hopes dashed.

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

'Causes of crime' come back to haunt Labour

For 1993 read 2010. For James Bulger, read the Edlington victims. And for Tony Blair's "tough the causes of crime," read David Cameron's "broken society." Here's today's Journal column.

It seems a long time ago now, but there was a time when law and order - or ‘Laura Norder’ as it was more commonly known - was regarded as what political commentators call a ‘Tory issue’

By that they meant that, whenever crime featured as a big issue in the public consciousness, the Tory vote would tend to go up – just as Labour’s vote tended to rise whenever the health service was in the headlines.

One dramatic news event, however, changed all that. The horrific murder of toddler James Bulger in 1993 understandably sparked a bout of national agonising about the kind of society the Tories had created over the preceding 13 or 14 years.

The beneficiary was an up-and-coming Labour frontbencher by the name of Tony Blair, then Shadow Home Secretary, whose famous soundbite “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,” encapsulated the changed national mood.

The repercussions are still being felt today. It is arguable that without the higher profile afforded him by the Bulger case, Mr Blair would never have eclipsed his older rival Gordon Brown in the subsequent battle for the Labour succession.

Be that as it may, tackling the causes of crime and anti-social behaviour has remained a core part of the New Labour agenda ever since.

Nearly two decades on, though, the political wheel has turned nearly full circle. Now it’s Labour that has been in power for 13 years, and Labour that must try to explain the deeper social malaise behind an almost equally horrific case.

David Cameron has often been accused of modelling himself on Mr Blair – but
commentators can surely be forgiven for drawing the comparison again after yesterday's speech by the Tory leader on the Edlington attacks.

Ever since he became Tory leader in 2005, Mr Cameron has attempted to paint a picture of what he sees as Britain’s “broken society,” casting himself in the role of healer.

However Labour has tried to dismiss the idea as, at best, a caricacture, and at worst, a slur on the decent hard-working, law-abiding families who make up the vast majority of the population.

Yesterday’s political exchanges saw that debate played out in microcosm. Mr Cameron said the case of two young boys tortured in Doncaster was not an "isolated incident of evil" but symptomatic of wider social problems.

Openly comparing the case to that of James Bulger, he said it should cause people to ask themselves: “What has gone wrong with our society and what we are going to do about it?"

Labour, in turn, accused Mr Cameron of "tarring" the people of Britain by "seizing on one absolutely horrific crime, with Treasury minister Liam Byrne branding the speech “unpleasant.”

Part of Labour’s objection to the phrase “broken society” is that it is, in a sense, a contradiction in terms, that the word “society” implies the existence of the kind of shared values and community spirit that Mr Cameron is suggesting is absent.

But the biggest question Labour has to answer is why after 13 criminal justice bills and the creation of more than 3,000 additional offences since 1997, we appear to be no further forward than we were in 1993.

For the first time in three elections, it looks like the Tories once more have a chance to make the ‘law and order issue’ their own.

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Campbell leads cavalry charge for Blair

Alastair Campbell's appearance before the Chilcot Inquiry this week was simply designed to lay the ground for the main event in a few week's time when Tony Blair himself takes the stand. But the former Prime Minister's plans to mount a robust defence of the Iraq War mean more bad news for his successor. Here's today's Journal column.

When I heard on the radio a week or so ago that Alastair Campbell was to give evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War this week, my first thought was of the Dickensian hero Sydney Carton.

As fans of A Tale of Two Cities will know, it was Carton who, in a supreme act of self-sacrifice at the climax of the novel, uttered the immortal words: “It is a far, far, better thing than I have ever done….”

Would Campbell, a man whose practice of the black arts of spin and smear has done more to degrade British politics in the past 20 years than any other individual, finally be prepared to do a “better thing” than he has ever done in the cause of truth?

Well, in a sense, the answer was yes. Because, although Campbell remains completely unrepentant about the Iraq War, and his role in inveigling the public into supporting it, he has, at least, finally been prepared to be honest about how and why it happened.

Appearing at the inquiry on Tuesday, the former Downing Street director of communications was asked by panel member Sir Roderick Lyne about a series of letters between Tony Blair and President George Bush in the run-up to the conflict.

He replied that the tenor of the letters was: "We are going to be with you in making sure that Saddam Hussein faces up to his obligations and that Iraq is disarmed. If that cannot be done diplomatically and it is to be done militarily, Britain will be there.”

The significance of this revelation is that it provides yet more conclusive evidence that Mr Blair’s determination to remove Saddam over-rode all other political and diplomatic considerations.

As the former Cabinet Secretary Lord Turnbull described it in his own evidence to the inquiry this week, his approach was essentially: “I’m going to do regime change and just talk the disarmament language.”

So what is Mr Campbell up to? Is he somehow intent on further trashing his old boss’s already tarnished historical reputation in the hope of garnering a few cheap headlines?

Not a bit of it. It is, as ever with Campbell, part of a concerted and deliberate strategy by Mr Blair and his inner circle to use the Chilcot inquiry to mount an unapologetic defence of the war.

Mr Campbell has always prided himself on being a loyal party man, but in the context of the forthcoming election, this is, to say the very least, unhelpful stuff for Gordon Brown and Labour.

The prospect of Mr Blair and other senior ex-colleagues loudly defending the war in the run-up to polling day is a nightmare scenario for the Prime Minister - but the truth is there isn’t a damned thing he can do about it.

And it is not just Messrs Blair and Campbell. We learn from a prominent North-East blogger that the Defence Minister, Kevan Jones, is shortly to go into print to explain why he supported the invasion in 2003, and why he still supports it now.

Fair play to Kevan for sticking to his guns, but I respectfully predict it will not win him a single additional vote in Durham North come 6 May - and may well lose him a fair few.

In the months following Mr Blair’s resignation in 2007, Mr Brown had a clear opportunity to distance the government from the Iraq debacle - if not from the actual decision to go to war, at least from the way in which it was done.

Thanks in part to Alastair Campbell, that option now no longer exists.

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

Why I want a hung Parliament

Why don't I want anyone to win the general election that will happen sometime in the first half of this year? Because its high time our two main parties were forced to put their tribalism to one side and work together for the good of the country. Here's today's Journal column.

Last week, in my political preview of 2010, I put my head on the block and predicted that this year’s general election will result in a slim Tory majority of the order of that achieved by Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

The chances of such an outcome have doubtless been strengthened by the past week’s events, and yet another botched coup attempt against Gordon Brown which has left the Prime Minister badly wounded, but not quite dead.

But if a narrow Tory victory is what I think will happen come May 6 – if indeed that proves to be the election date – what do I think should happen when the country finally goes to the polls?

Well, at the risk of infuriating the supporters of both main parties – and it wouldn’t be the first time, after all – I have no hesitation in saying that I very much hope the electorate will deliver us a hung Parliament.

At this point, I can practically hear the collective ranks of the North-East’s Conservative and Labour stalwarts sighing to themselves: “We always knew he was a Liberal Democrat.”

But actually, the reason I want to see a hung Parliament is not because I want to see a Lib-Lab coalition, or even a Lib-Con one, but because I think the country now badly needs a government of national unity.

It may seem an odd time to say this, given the increasingly bitter nature of the two parties’ attacks on eachother over the past few days as the pre-election skirmishing got under way in earnest.

But in my view, the peculiar circumstances of this time in politics demand a degree of cross-party co-operation that can only happen if the two main parties are working together in government.

Why do I say this? Well, because the country is facing three big challenges at the moment which, in my view, would be best handled by a bipartisan approach.

They are, firstly, the economy, and specifically the question of how to tackle the budget deficit. Secondly, how to restore trust in politics after the twin scandals of the Iraq War and MPs’ expenses. And thirdly, how to bring our involvement in Afghanistan to a successful, or at the very least an honourable, conclusion.

On all of these key questions, whichever party wins the election will have to make some hard and potentially unpopular choices.

It would, in my view, be better if they were in a position to build a national cross-party consensus for those difficult choices rather than having to make them in the knowledge that they will be opposed for opposition’s sake.

This is particularly true of the economy. Everyone now knows that the next government will have to carry out the most vicious public spending cuts since the early 80s – so why indulge in the pretence that there is actually an alternative?

On political reform, too, it would be better if the parties could as far as possible reach agreement on the way forward, rather than for one side to face the inevitable accusations of fixing the system to suit their own ends.

The last Lab-Con coalition was, of course, the wartime one formed by Sir Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee in 1940 which successfully saw the country through to victory over Hitler in 1945.

I do not claim the peril facing us now is anything like of the order of that dark hour, but the sense of national emergency that has gripped the UK for the past year or so perhaps comes closer to it than anything since.

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Political preview of 2010

Sometimes, the political year is hard to predict. Back in January 2007, we could all be reasonably sure that Gordon Brown was going to become Prime Minister later that year – but what no-one foresaw was what a balls-up he would make on the question of whether to then hold a snap election.

Likewise 12 months ago, few pundits or politicians saw the MPs expenses scandal coming, although as I have pointed out in this column before, it should have been spotted down the tracks from a fair way off.

The year 2010, though, should be easier. There will be a general election, and barring a most extraordinary reversal of political fortune, the long period of New Labour hegemony will come to an end.

Indeed, the main debate among political crystal-ball-gazers has not been so much over whether Labour will lose, as over whether the Tories will win by enough to be able to form a government in their own right.

Several factors are running in their favour. Mr Brown has never managed to ‘connect’ with the British public, and has had to shoulder at least part of the blame for a recession that has revived all those old question marks against Labour’s economic competence.

Tory leader David Cameron, who has never been behind in the opinion polls since he took on the job, will be able to argue fairly persuasively that the only way to get rid of the Prime Minister is to vote Conservative.

Against that, there is the considerable obstacle of Britain’s skewed electoral system which means that the Tories will have to be 10-11 percentage points ahead of Labour in the national share of the vote to be sure of an absolute Commons majority.

And - perhaps the biggest hurdle of all for Mr Cameron – the fact that Labour’s unpopularity has still not been matched by any great surge of public enthusiasm for the Tories.

So, cards on the table time, what is my election prediction? Well, as ever, the historical precedents provide what I would see as the most meaningful clues.

Labour is hoping that this election might turn out to be a bit like 1992 – the year John Major won in the teeth of a recession because he was ultimately more trusted to deal with the economy than his opponent.

For my part, I think the mood in the country feels much more like 1979 – an election in which the public’s primary concern was to get rid of Labour rather than to elect the relatively untried and untested Margaret Thatcher.

What that points to is not a Conservative landslide, but a Commons majority of the kind of order of that achieved by the Iron Lady against Jim Callaghan – 43 seats.

Is there anything the Prime Minister can do to change the game? Well, I suppose the obvious thing would be to resign, and there is a small window of opportunity over the next few weeks in which it could yet happen.

I have always been among those who believed that, if Mr Brown felt he was damaging the party’s chances by staying, he would call it a day – but it has to be said that he has thus far shown no evidence of any desire to quit.

Nevertheless, I am still keeping perhaps 10pc of my mind open to the possibility that he will stand down, in a bid to give a younger successor a fighting chance of winning that elusive Labour fourth term.

And if that were to happen, then clearly all the many predictions that have been made about the political year 2010 would need to be very swiftly revised.

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