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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.