Iraq inquiry: Weird things we've learned

Politics.co.uk
Politics.co.uk

Memos, resolutions and legal advice dominate discussion, but there are also some pretty weird facts emerging from the Iraq inquiry.

By Ian Dunt

The gradually emerging consensus around the Iraq inquiry is that it won't change anyone's mind. Opponents will say it confirms their worst fears of government illegality, while supporters will stick with the arguments raised at the time.

But whenever you get powerful men and women speaking (relatively) freely, you can always salvage useful titbits of information. Here's what we've gathered so far.


Alistair Campbell is the supporting actor in his own Hollywood drama

The former director of communications gave us a narrative that revealed an Olympic sense of self-denial. In this movie, he was the valiant supportive friend while Tony Blair was a golden hero, doggedly pursuing truth and justice in a depraved and bitter world.

"I won't pretend I didn't have doubts," he said. "One of the doubts was whether he [Blair] would survive. I remember saying, 'are you so sure about this you're going to put your entire premiership on the line'? He said 'Saddam's been a threat for far too long. Sometimes you've just got to do the right thing.'"

There was no effort to get the 45-minute claim into the evening news, he insisted. The dodgy dossier was an example of open government. Sentences which played down the threat from Iraq just happened to be removed, with no political reasoning behind it at all.

Then, a little later, Campbell put the finishing touches on his performance with a touching blog post on the ups and downs of a sexual relationship with the editor of the Daily Mail. "Just as I don't do God, I don't do male. And I certainly don't do Mail scum. So, Paul Dacre, whatever is going on inside that troubled head as you toss and turn alongside your poor wife sleeping gently besides you, I am sorry, it is time for me to be frank with you - it can never be." Yes. Quite.

No-one likes Sir David Meyer

The former British ambassador to Washington caused a minor protocol dispute when he gleefully wrote of Tony Blair's "ball-crushingly tight" trousers while visiting George Bush at Camp David. But the people he disturbed with that description all tried to get their own back during the inquiry by lining up to question his evidence. Sir Christopher had been "remarkably churlish", Campbell suggested. "In some respects Christopher Meyer's evidence did not portray an accurate representation of what happened in Crawford."

Commenting on Sir Christopher's comments that UK policy changed after the famous Crawford meeting, Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to the PM, said: "That's a misunderstanding. . . I was at Crawford, Sir David Manning was at Crawford, Sir Christopher Meyer was not." Ouch.

'Sources close to' doesn't always mean the person themselves

For tourists struggling to communicate in Spain, a good rule of thumb is to take the English word you want to say and then chuck a vowel on the end. Most of the time, you'll get it right. The same applies to newspaper reports with quotes from 'sources close to'. This is almost always the person themselves. 'Sources close to Charles Clarke suggested he would make a fine prime minister,' for example. And yes, we did make that up.

But apparently not in the case of Lord Goldsmith, who was visibly irritated by a report in the Mail suggesting he had been "pinned to the wall" by Lord Falconer and Sally Morgan, Blair's political adviser. It was "complete and utter nonsense". The paper attributed the story to a source close to Goldsmith, but he said he wasn't the source. Something about the way he trembled with anger while saying it made it utterly believable.

No-one cares what Margaret Beckett thinks

An explosive day of evidence on Tuesday ended with an hour for Margaret Beckett, Blair's last foreign secretary. Everyone switched off, including most of the online blogs. "Margaret Beckett, foreign secretary from May 2006 to June 2007, is giving evidence now, but I'm afraid I'm going to give her a miss," the Guardian's excellent rolling commentator, Andrew Sparrow, wrote. Across Westminster, journalists and politicians just tuned out.

International law is or isn't confusing

Confronted with Jack Straw's assertion that international law is "pretty vague", Sir Michael Wood and Elizabeth Wilmshurst insisted quite the opposite. It's precisely because there is no court that legal experts must be so careful when approaching the topic, Wilmshurst insisted. The comments were not particularly newsworthy, but they were remarkable. They sound more like the thoughts of an academic than a legal professional. Wilmshurst clearly believes rules can be enforced without any power. There was something hugely respectable about her appearance. Her ice-cold aside that Straw is not "an international lawyer" earned her laughter and admiration in the inquiry room. But her opinion left us in the same quandary as before: does a law exist if there is no-one there to enforce it?

The inquiry makes Gordon Brown nervous

The prime minister spends much of his time winding up David Cameron for making U-turns, but he is rather adept at them himself. The Iraq inquiry is a case in point. First, it could not take place until after our service personnel had left Iraq. Then it would take place in private. An outcry changed that rather quickly. But Sir John Chilcot's insistence that Brown should not be interviewed before the election for fear of the event turning into a party political circus quickly bit the dust as well.

Opposition parties scoffed at the idea that this statement was not the result of strong advice from Downing Street and after a few well-timed questions from Nick Clegg at PMQs, Mr Brown ended up writing to Sir John insisting he was happy to come whenever. Very good, Sir John replied. Out you come then. So now Brown gives evidence at the worst possible time. Just before an election. In public. That could probably have been handled better.

Jack Straw has two faces

There were two Jack Straws at the inquiry. The first was the man who came to speak. Left wing, moderate, almost apologetic, he decried the neo-cons, described the war as the hardest decision he ever took and generally came across as a good bloke.

Then there was the man everyone else described. The prime minister's right hand man, roughly forcing legal experts and advisors to shut up or stop being "dogmatic". In a telling moment, Sir Michael explained how Straw told him that at the Home Office he had simply bludgeoned his way through with policies and found out if they were legal later, in the court. This was not a nice, temperate man. It was a mad, power-hungry, attack dog foreign secretary intent on doing his master's bidding. We'll leave it up to you to decide which one is real.

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