Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Campbell's soup spoiled by personal letters

Alisdair Campbell was told to "get serious" when, at the opening of his evidence to the Chilcott inquiry, he said he wouldn’t jump off a tall building if asked by Tony Blair.

But he was being serious as it soon became apparent that Blair’s former press secretary, still the spinner, still the praetorian guard, would do anything short of that for his old boss.

By the end of an impressive five hours of evidence Campbell had built a sizable scaffold on which Tony Blair can drape his justification for British involvement in invading Iraq in 2003.

Contrary to what the inquiry had heard from other witnesses, Campbell argued Blair never committed to the removal of Saddam Hussein until the last minute. Throughout Blair pursued twin track of diplomacy through the UN backed by the threat of military action, right up until the Commons debate on war in March 2003.

The Chilcott inquiry worthies simply didn’t have the firepower to contradict him. They recalled Sir Christopher Meyer’s words, who claimed a deal had been "signed in blood" between George W Bush and Tony Blair for regime change in 2002. But Campbell - combining the robust charm, defiance and unshakable self-belief that lobby journalists recognised from days of old - dismissed the former Washington ambassador as "churlish".

Only Sir Roderic Lyne broke the narrative web of Blair’s attachment to diplomacy. He flummoxed Campbell by referring to personal letters Tony Blair had penned to George Bush as early as 2002. Campbell confirmed they were "frank and advisory" when Sir Roderic suggested the letters showed Blair had committed Britain to go to war with Bush if the UN route was exhausted.

"The PM wrote a lot of notes and the tenor of them was: we share the analysis, we share the concern, we are going to be with you in making sure that Saddam Hussein is faced 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."

When it came to other documents Campbell dismissed suggestions he "sexed up" the dossier on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction and blamed the controversy surrounding it on "an utterly dishonest piece of journalism" by the BBC which spiralled into the death of weapons expert Dr David Kelly. "I defend every single word of the dossier every single word of the process," he declared. The second "dodgy dossier" published in February 2003, the one plagiarised off the internet, was a "mistake" he admitted.

Sir Rod was the one panel member who punctured Campbell’s disciplined strategy. He asked why Mr Blair referred to Iraq’s WMD programme as "active, detailed and growing" in Parliament in September 2002. Previously, the threat was described as "current, serious and credible". The idea of "growing" doesn’t appear in the thousands of pages of intelligence reports, said Sir Rod. Campbell blustered a response as the inquiry came close to suggesting Blair exaggerated the case for war and misled the Commons.

Yesterday was only the warm-up for these bigger questions but Campbell provided a glimpse behind the curtain and expressed pride in Blair’s lonely decision to go to war. "I saw the Prime Minister as often as anybody else and I saw someone of deep conviction and integrity who was without doubt making the most difficult decision of his premiership, knowing there were going to be consequences," he said.

"People knew from within their own households how divisive this issue was but let’s get rid of the conspiracy theories that this was about oil or George Bush telling Tony Blair what to do. Somebody who has been elected Prime Minister, who wants to get re-elected, does not make a decision like this unless he really believes in it." Ultimately Blair thought there would be a "day of reckoning" if Iraq was not confronted.

Finally he suggested that government needed a communications strategy for the Afghan war. Campbell’s coda to his spirited performance: more war, more spin.

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