In the theatre of schemes, A Merchant of Death disappoints

A newly-discovered work by the Bard could scarcely have generated more expectation than that surrounding Tony Blair’s Chilcot appearance last Friday.
Outside the Elizabethan venue, interviewers interviewed, police policed, and demonstrators demonstrated. In offices and sitting rooms up and down Britain, at 9.31 am pc users and TV viewers gave a collective intake of breath as the lead character in this slow-moving tragi-comedy entered stage left.

“Blair sits down’ tweeted the lucky few quick enough on the buttons before Twitter crashed for the day.

But long-term Blair-watchers knew within seconds that the script would lack dramatic tension. For Tony was focused. When focused, the former PM looks much the same as ever, but the ears and nose are the giveaway: his hooter pulls itself back slightly, thus allowing the Blair tympanic membrane to shift into Receive gear. This causes his ears to incline forwards ever so slightly. It was as clear a case of Forward Not Back as you’ll ever see.

Once focused, the core skill required by any successful actor is the denial of one obvious untruth after another: ‘Here I am in this echoey theatre, dressed up in silly mediaeval Venetian clothes, and talking in arcane meter. We all know that I’m Baghdad Tony from the telly-soap Westminsters, but follow me now as Blairanio the romantic lead takes over my body’. Sadly, one great performance does not a play make – especially when you’re the Merchant of Death, and the other players have been recruited from the Dead Sheep’s Society.

From the kick-off last November, the Chilcot Inquiry has been a Perry Mason short of a twist. This is partly because none of the panel members are QCs, mainly because they were hired to ask easy questions, and a little bit because at least one of them is asleep as well as dead. I refer of course to Sir Martin Gilbert. I’d be willing to bet that his chief reason for agreeing to take part was the hope of some juicy material for another historical tome; but clearly he wasn’t expecting the frenetic pace established by the others, and thus finds himself in need of a semi-permanent nap.

I do not wish Sir Martin ill (I enjoyed his Churchill biographies voluminously over several decades) but if he’s getting taxpayer readies for this gig, then I for one want my money back. As for Sir John Chilcot, he mostly restricts himself to explaining the rules. The obvious nominee of a Prime Minister hoping to bore the country to tears, he is both unexpectedly and unintentionally amusing. As the MC of a game show called Boobies’ Question Time, he’d be perfect. But as the Chairman of a post-war inquiry into the reason for having such a war in the first place, he is perpetually bamboozled.

This is especially relevant given that, while Mr Blair presented much in the way of vicarious legitimacy, facts were not much in evidence. To be frank, his testimony had more holes in it than a Cotton Exchange with a Biblical moth infestation.

He suggested that the perception of danger from Saddam had intensified after 9/11. But Straw’s memo of the time recorded that the reality of danger had not changed one iota. He talked of ‘not knowing’ Saddam’s connection to Al Qeida. But Sir Roderic Lyne reminded him that there wasn’t a shred of evidence connecting the Iraqi regime to Bin Laden. (There still isn’t). On the subject of regime change, Blair skilfully introduced the idea that the regime’s attitudes were inseparable from WMD. So we were left asking why a nasty regime with no WMD might be dangerous. The Fern Brittan interview came up, and Blair smiled as he told the panel the interview took place long before Chilcot. In this instance, I pondered long and hard as to what his point might have to do with the price of cod. His explanation was all the more risible in the light of the Freudian slip, “other arguments would have to have been assembled” without WMD.

Some of the former PM’s observations were downright brazen: the views of legion experts on International Law were ignored – as was the belief in the MoD that invasion was ‘the nightmare scenario’. His written messages of assurance to Bush were glossed over. His Richmond promises were reduced to “the President knew we would stand shoulder to shoulder”. A question about his dossier assertion ‘without doubt’ was answered by “Hey – look – I believed it”.

During this last week, UN Resolution 1441 has – in my mind at least – become a brand of Euro-lager everyone talks about, but nobody drinks. Thus (Blair told everyone) 1441 could “easily be used to make Peter Goldsmith’s case”. Well actually no, it can’t. Try a case or two of 1441, Tony: however much it dulls your brain, it’s impossible to get away from the feeling that 1441 says no-fly-zones good, shock and awe invasions bad. Why else would Lord Goldsmith insist for two years that invasion was illegal under 1441? Even more to the point, why did it take a tense meeting at Number Ten – followed by arm-twisting in the States – to persuade the Attorney General that his previously held opinion (in concert with every other legal brain in Britain) should suddenly be changed from no to yes?

There remains a strong air of Josef Goebbels about Tony Blair – the belief that ‘if you’re gonna tell a lie, tell a big ’un’. In terms of his reputation, my genuine belief is that many will feel reassured by his performance today: patriots themselves, they will embrace him as a fellow patriot. Right at the end of his evidence, the Great Pretender insisted “I believe we must make the same decisions of solidarity against the Iranian regime”. But like the boy who cried wolf, this hopelessly confused egomaniac has in fact made it near-impossible for Britain (or any other EU nation) to support US action in the future. He has, in short, given moral conviction a bad name.

Simplistic as it may sound, I think history will write that on 9/11, Al Q’eida goaded the two closest Anglo-Saxon Christian powers into an intemperate response…..and those two nations fell head-first into Bin Laden’s crude elephant-trap. Seven years on, the Russians, French and Iranians are still laughing about it. This, surely, is why Blair should be vilified.