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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.