Foreign Office officials disaffected as a result of being ignored by the Blair administration are leaking more and more information to journalists about the lead-up to Iraq. This could sink Tony Blair’s reputation once and for all.
Time was when the British Foreign Office (the FO as was, now the FCO) held sway over UK foreign policy – but no longer. When Tony Blair came to power in 1997, the arrogance of youth told him the FCO was full of stuffed shirts and dead wood. After managing to exert an extraordinary influence over the latter years of Clinton, Blair latched quickly onto Bush and his aims. Ignoring warnings from his advisers about the Bush family agenda, the charismatic British leader not only connected with the Republicans: after 9/11 he committed himself to a War on Terror the FCO couldn’t see – or understand.
The British Chilcot Inquiry into the causes and conduct of the Iraq invasion began as a routine exercise in ass-covering for the Establishment. But in recent weeks – as key witness testimony has been found to be a heady mixture of incredibility and inconsistency – the UK media set has taken a more aggressive interest in the case.
So too has the smallest mainstream Party, the Liberal Democrats – under the shrewd leadership of Nick Clegg. Unwilling to accept a secretive whitewash, Clegg (and a variety of opposition press alongside campaigning blogsites) have ensured the hearings are largely public, and the witnesses of the great as well as the good.
The first round of hearings are over, but the quiescent period may not last long. Foreign Secretary at the time of the conflict Jack Straw stands accused of bullying the country’s chief law officer, Lord Goldsmith, in relation to the advice the latter gave to Britain’s Executive (the Cabinet). Britain’s Constitution may be largely unwritten, but this is a clear case of illegal behaviour. It has resulted in calls for Straw to resign, but more crucially it is alleged that Blair himself not only colluded in this, he took an active part in it.
Unlike in the States, there is no process for impeachment of an existing Prime Minister. Equally, there is no precedent for the prosecution of a former PM: for the first time in its history, the UK faces the prospect of a senior politician being charged with very serious malpractice.
In Tony Blair’s case, there are two elements to the issue. The first is that he lied to Parliament on the question of going to war. For four hundred years, Parliament has been the sovereign body; and under constitutional law (ill-defined or not) this would be deemed a criminal offence by most lawyers. While doubts have been raised about the matter, Blair told Parliament that Saddam’s ownership of WMD was ‘beyond doubt’. Chilcot witnesses have come forward and suggested this simply was not the case. In particular, senior Ministry of Defence weapons expert David Kelly leaked to the BBC his opinion that the WMD case was without foundation. Kelly wound up dead – officially a suicide. But many have their doubts about the circumstances surrounding his demise.
The second is that – within the last fortnight – Tony Blair has testified to the Chilcot Inquiry. When asked the direct question if he had in 2002 given George W Bush ‘a cast-iron commitment to get rid of Saddam’, the former British leader replied “Of course not”. Within hours, the FCO started leaking all over the place about what a gigantic lie this allegedly was. These leaks included the categorical assertion that Blair only gave such a straight answer in the certain knowledge that his correspondence with President Bush during this period would remain classified.
This is where the disaffected nature of FCO officials becomes key to the truth of what really happened. Angry at being both ignored and duped since for twelve years, these disaffected ranks are now talking to all and sundry – including this site.
There is ample evidence that what the moles are peddling has real provenance. On top political commentator Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning political chat show the weekend before last, Blair aide Alistair Campbell appeared to have a panic attack when asked by the host whether the WMD evidence had ever been real. But the red-hot smoking gun will be the leakage of that allegedly infamous Blair/Bush correspondence. Every libertarian in Britain is waiting for the first person brave enough to flout the Official Secrets Act and give out copies of the letters.
There are parallels for all Americans of the Vietnam generation in this unfolding drama. Like Nixon in 1971, Blair’s Labour Party faces an election in the coming months. Its distractions may smother the truth in the same way that Tricky Dicky’s CREEP kept the truth of Watergate at bay for a while. The addition of the suffix ‘gate’ has become a lazy usage among journalists over the decades, when faced with serious crises of belief in a government Executive. But in this case, the Chilcot Inquiry may yet turn out to be an historic gate between one epoch and another.