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.


Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.


Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.