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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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories