Blair is in control of the narrative so far

The Staggers' third instalment from the Chilcot inquiry today.

It's the break for lunch. Blair became passionate during the second session of the morning -- emphatically defending the course of action that he took. Perhaps one of the key lines, and the one that provides insight into his perspective, is this:

Sometimes it's important not to ask the March 2003 question but to ask the 2010 question.

Blair forcefully believes that, whatever the process, the result of the action he took was right. That if, right now, Saddam Hussein and his sons were still holding on to power in Iraq, the world would be in a much worse situation, and significantly more fragile. Another key moment was his assessment of what it all boiled down to -- his personal judgement:

In the end, this is what it is: this isn't about a lie or a conspiracy or a deceit, it is a decision and a decision I had to take . . . It's a judgement. I had to take the decision.

Sir Roderic Lyne raised a laugh as he responded, sardonically: "You made that, I think, very clear." The rest of the morning's session covered the 2002 dossier, which Blair dismissed as being hyped up far more than when it was actually launched (when it was seen as being rather cautious and dull, he says).

He was challenged by Sir Lawrence Freedman over the phrase "beyond doubt", which Blair used in reference to his belief in the intelligence and featured in the foreword of the dossier. There is an interesting exchange:

Blair: I did believe it. I did believe it frankly beyond doubt.
Freedman: Beyond your doubt. But beyond anyone's doubt?
Blair: Look . . . if I'd said it was clear rather than beyond doubt it would have the same impact.

And so it comes down to semantics, and the oft-employed "belief". On the 45-minute claim, he admitted it would have been better to correct it in retrospect. But Blair has an extraordinary ability to shrug away critical or awkward moments -- as though the panel keep missing the point.

Then the questioning moved on to the diplomatic process -- the conversations with Hans Blix on weapons inspections and an attempt by the panel to establish a clear order of events.

Blair's treatment of the panel is fascinating in itself -- he uses endless disarming techniques, deferentially calling them by their full titles and using their names as he speaks, as though they are having a one-on-one conversation. He often comments on their questions being "fair" and "right" in their direction, but then also tries to hold them back so they don't miss the truly "important" points in the process.

There's no doubt: he is controlling the narrative so far.


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Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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Boris Johnson isn't risking his political life over Heathrow

The anti-Heathrow campaigner was never a committed environmentalist. 

A government announcement on expanding London’s airports is expected today, and while opposition forces have been rallying against the expected outcome - a third runway at Heathrow - the decision could also be a divisive one for the ruling Conservative party. A long consultation period will allow these divisions to fester. 

Reports suggest that up to 60 Conservative MPs are against expansion at the Heathrow site. The Prime Minister’s own constituents are threatening legal action, and the former London mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith, has promised to step down as MP for Richmond rather than let the airport develop.

But what of Boris Johnson? The politician long synonymous with Heathrow opposition - including a threat to lie down “in front of those bulldozers” - is expected to call the decision a mistake. But for a man unafraid to dangle from a zipwire, he has become unusually reticent on the subject.

The reticence has partly been imposed upon him. In a letter to her cabinet ministers, Theresa May has granted them freedom from the usual rules of collective responsibility (under which cabinet ministers are required to support government positions). But she has also requested that they refrain from speaking out in the Commons, from “actively” campaigning against her position, and from calling “into question the decision making process itself”.  

Johnson is not about to start cheering for Heathrow. But unlike Goldsmith, he is no committed environmentalist - and he's certainly a committed politician.  

Boris’s objections to the expansion at Heathrow have all too often only extended as far as the lives of his London constituents. These local impacts are not to be belittled – in his role of mayor of London, he rightly pointed to the extreme health risks of increased noise and air pollution. And his charisma and profile have also boosted community campaigns around these issues. 

But when it comes to reducing emissions, Johnson is complacent. He may have come a long way since a 2013 Telegraph article in which he questioned whether global warming was real. Yet his plan to build an alternative “hub” airport in the Thames Estuary would have left the question of cutting UK aviation emissions worryingly un-resolved. This lack of curiosity is alarming considering his current job as foreign secretary. 

And there are reasons to be concerned. According to Cait Hewitt at the Aviation Environment Federation, the UK fails to meet its targets for CO2 reduction. And the recent UN deal on aviation emission mitigation doesn’t even meet the commitments of the UK’s own Climate Change Act, let alone the more stringent demands of the Paris Agreement. “Deciding that we’re going to do something that we know is going to make a problem worse, before we’ve got an answer, is the wrong move”, said Hewitt.

There is a local environmental argument too. Donnachadh McCarthy, a spokesperson from the activist group “Rising Up”, says the pollution could affect Londoners' health: "With 70 per cent of flights taken just by 15 per cent of the UK's population... this is just not acceptable in a civilised democracy.”

The way Johnson tells it, his reason for staying in government is a pragmatic one. “I think I'd be better off staying in parliament to fight the case, frankly," he told LBC Radio in 2015. And he's right that, whatever the government’s position, the new “national policy statement” to authorise the project will likely face a year-long public consultation before a parliamentary vote in late 2017 or early 2018. Even then the application will still face a lengthy planning policy stage and possible judicial review. 

But if the foreign secretary does fight this quietly, in the back rooms of power, it is not just a loss to his constituents. It means the wider inconsistencies of his position can be brushed aside - rather than exposed and explored, and safely brought down to ground. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.