The truth is more tawdry than the lies

The so-called "Williams draft" of the notorious Iraq weapons dossier confirms at last that governmen

Now we have the missing draft of the government's notorious weapons of mass destruction dossier in our hands, it is horribly plain why officials and ministers went to such lengths to stop us seeing it. The so-called "Williams draft" - named after John Williams, the former Sunday Mirror journalist who became director of communications at the Foreign Office - demonstrates beyond doubt that the government's spin machine was at the heart of the process of drafting the dossier designed to persuade MPs and the British public of the case for war. The official narrative (that the dossier was the work of the intelligence community) was severely damaged by the Hutton and Butler inquiries. Now, thanks to the tireless work of a charity researcher-turned-sleuth, Chris Ames, who has pursued the issue via Freedom of Information requests as detailed in the pages of the New Statesman, that argument is holed below the waterline.

Williams and the government have stubbornly held to the line that the draft, produced on 9 September, was a helpful act of freelance work, set aside when the real work began the next day, and was never intended to contribute to the genuine process. This is frankly preposterous. Working from first principles: if the document was the irrelevant work of an overeager press officer, why has the government gone to such trouble over the years to hinder its release? The Hutton inquiry was provided with drafts from 10/11 September, and 16, 19 and 20 September. It was also shown an earlier stab at a working document from the summer of 2002, which provided the basis of Williams's work. Each of these documents, on the face of it, is more sensitive than the Williams draft, which was, according to the government, merely the idle jottings of a press officer with too much time on his hands.

But it is not a laughing matter. The Williams draft demonstrates that assertions presented to the public as "judgements of the Joint Intelligence Committee" in fact originated from the pen of a spin doctor presenting the case for war. Take, for example, the claim in the Williams draft that Iraq "has developed transportable laboratories" to produce biological weapons. Thanks to documents released to the Hutton inquiry we now know that the working draft claimed merely that Iraq "sought to develop mobile facilities to produce a biological agent". Despite the government's assertions that the Williams document was not part of the drafting process, the spin doctor's wording about the mobile labs miraculously finds its way into the final dossier.

There is also the small matter of the marginal notes which litter the text of the Williams draft. These fatally undermine the case that Williams's work was "set aside" and the drafting process started from scratch on 10 September. The Foreign Office refuses to say who made the notes, but they appear to have been made by a senior official with detailed knowledge of the Middle East. Many of them urge Williams to tone down his tabloid stylistic excesses but they are patently written by someone who sees Williams's work as part of the dossier process.

Erased note

One revealing note follows Williams's assertion that Iraq "has retained a dozen al Hussein missiles, capable of carrying a chemical or biological warhead, either by hiding them from the UN as complete systems or by reassembling them". In the margin, an official has added: "The Al-Hussein range of 650km brings into Iraq's range Israel and British bases on Cyprus." The threat to British interests on Cyprus was a key element in the briefing to journalists that took place after the publication of the final dossier. A similar claim in the Williams draft about Iraq "developing as a priority longer-range missile systems capable of threatening Nato (Greece and Turkey?)" is firmed up in the final dossier to read: "Iraq . . . constructed a new engine test stand for the development of missiles capable of reaching the UK sovereign base areas in Cyprus and Nato members (Greece and Turkey)."

The marginal notes also provide a further clue to the real reasons the government did not want the draft released. When the Information Tribunal ordered the release of the Williams draft it allowed one of these handwritten notes to be "redacted" (ie, removed) from the document. The reason given was that the note would be damaging to international relations. Normally such a redaction would be marked by a blacked-out section in the text, but in this case the Foreign Office has simply erased the note altogether. So what did it say? There is already plenty in the notes that could be seen as damaging. Take, for example, the comments on the first paragraph of the draft, which begins: "Iraq presents a uniquely dangerous threat to the world." Williams goes on to state that, "No other country has twice launched wars of aggression against neighbours." The official makes a note in the margin that Germany might be considered to have done so and helpfully inserts "since WWII?". But he or she also adds "US. Cuba, Grenada, Mexico". The next sentence reads: "In the 77 years since the Geneva Convention against chemical weapons was signed, Iraq is the only country to have broken it." Here, the fastidious official has added: "Japan in China?"

The references to Japan and Germany clearly refer to the countries' dark past, but what marginal note could be more damaging than the suggestion that the US was in some way equivalent to Saddam's Iraq because it too was guilty of launching wars of aggression against its neighbours? What if the note referred to the final sentence in the opening paragraph, which reads: "No other country has flouted the United Nations' authority so brazenly in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction"? Because if officials in the Foreign Office believed there was another country as guilty as Saddam's Iraq of breaching UN resolutions, then this would seriously undermine the argument that it presented a unique case. It would be intriguing if the note had been removed at this point (there is a tantalising dash in the margin which appears to lead nowhere. Was there originally the name of another country here?). What diplomatic relations did the Foreign Office wish to protect by removing this marginal note and how can they be more sensitive than those with Britain's closest ally, the US?

Desperate measures

The official story about the Williams draft is contradictory and has changed several times, so it is quite possible that the "diplomatic relations" argument was just a desperate last-ditch attempt to scupper the release of the document.

John Scarlett sent an email in September 2002 saying that Williams had provided him with "considerable help" with the drafting of the dossier. But he later changed his story at the Hutton inquiry, and played down the spin doctor's role. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's director of communications, even denied the existence of the draft. The Foreign Office initially withheld the draft from the Hutton inquiry. The man responsible, Stephen Pattison, now director of international security at the Foreign Office, was one of the key witnesses at the Information Tribunal, where his evidence was criticised. The draft was finally handed over to Hutton after a request by the BBC, although it appears never to have been handed over to the interested parties, including the journalist at the centre of the storm, Andrew Gilligan. It is revealing that at no point in this process was the rogue marginal note - now seen as so damaging - removed from the document.

The Williams draft is a pitiful document, especially as we now know from the former spinner himself that he was not convinced by the argument for producing a dossier. Williams used all his skills as a tabloid journalist to write a racy and convincing story to engage his readers. We have long known the narrative was fictional, but we now have confirmation that the original author was not from the intelligence community, but a government spin doctor. The truth could not be more tawdry.

Click here for the Guardian's take on the dossier story

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn

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Byron burgers and bacon sandwiches: can any politician get away with eating on camera?

Memo to aspirant world leaders: eating in public is a political minefield.

Miliband’s sandwich. Cameron’s hot dog. Osborne’s burger. The other Miliband’s banana. As well as excellent names for up-and-coming indie bands, these are just a few examples of now infamous food faux pas committed by British politicians.

During his entire mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan refused to eat anything in public. When journalist Simon Hattenstone met him in his local curry house for the Guardian, the now-mayor didn’t eat a single bite despite “dish after dish” arriving at the table. Who can blame him? Though Ed Miliband had been pictured blunderingly eating a bacon sandwich an entire year earlier, the national furore around the incident had not yet died down. “He can make me look Clooneyesque or make me look like Ed eating a bacon sandwich,” Khan said of the photographer at the time.

Miliband’s bacon sandwich is now so infamous that I need offer no explanation for the event other than those words. There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the photograph of Ed, lips curled and eyes rolling, as he tucks into that fateful sarnie. Yet politicians frequently bite off more than they can chew – why did Ed’s mishap inspire multiple headlines and an entire front page of The Sun?

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“The momentum got behind the bacon sandwich story because he was awkward, it showed him in a light which was true - he was an awkward candidate in that election,” says Paul Baines, a professor of political marketing at Cranfield University. “He didn’t come across right.”

The photograph of Miliband fit neatly within a pre-existing image of the politician – that he was bumbling, incompetent, and unable to take control. Similarly, when David Cameron was pictured eating a hot dog with a knife and fork months later, the story reinforced popular notions of him as a posh, out-of-touch, champagne-swilling old Etonian. Though Oxford-educated, two-kitchen Miliband is nearly as privileged as Cameron, and Brexit-inducing Dave equally as incompetent as Ed, the pictures would not gain the same popularity in reverse. There are many, many less-than-flattering pictures of Cameron eating, but they didn’t fit into a workable narrative.

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No one, for example, focused on the price of Ed’s sandwich. Purchased at New Covenant Garden Market, it was undoubtedly more expensive than Greggs’ £1.75 bacon roll – but no one cared. When George Osborne was pictured eating an £8 Byron burger whilst cutting £11.5 million from the British budget, however, the picture spoke to many. The then-chancellor was forced to explain that “McDonalds doesn't deliver”, although, as it turned out, Byron didn’t either.

“The idea was to try and display him in a good light – here's a guy eating a burger just like everyone else. The only problem was it was a posh burger and of course he didn't look like everyone else because he was spending ten quid on a burger,” explains Baines.

But Dave, Ed, and George are just the latest in a long, long line of politicians who have been mocked for their eating habits. Across the ocean, Donald Trump has been lambasted for liking his steak well done, while in 1976, Gerald Ford was mocked after biting into the inedible corn husk of a tamale. Why then, do politicians not copy Khan, and avoid being pictured around food altogether?

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“Food connects everybody, food is essentially a connection to culture and the 'every person',” explains Baines. “[Nigel] Farage's appearance in the pub has definitely had a positive impact on how he's perceived by a big chunk of the working class electorate which is an important, sizeable group.” Though Cameron, too, has been pictured with pints, his undeniably weird grasp on the glass make the pictures seem inauthentic, compared to Farage whose pints are clearly at home in his hands. In America, Joe Biden managed to capture the same authenticity with an ice-cream cone.

“I think when it comes across badly is when it comes across as inauthentic,” says Baines. “If I were advising, I certainly wouldn't advise Theresa May to be seen in the pub having a pint, that would not shine with her particular character or style. But could Tim Farron come across better in that way? Possibly but it does have to be authentic.”

Food, then, can instantly make a politician seem in or out of touch. This is especially true when food connects to national identity. Tony Blair, for example, publicly claimed his favourite dish was fish and chips despite earlier saying it was fettuccine with olive oil, sundried tomatoes and capers. In the 1980s, Lord Mandelson allegedly mistook mushy peas for guacamole, insulting us all. In the States, you’d be hard pressed to find a politician who hasn’t been pictured with a hot dog, and there are entire articles dedicated to US politicians who eat pizza with a knife and fork. Again, the food fits a narrative – politicians out of touch with the common person.  

Then again, sometimes, just sometimes, no narrative is needed. We’d advise any candidate who seriously wants a shot in the 2017 General Election to not, under any circumstances, be pictured casually feeding a Solero to an unidentified young woman. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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