Blair at the Chilcot inquiry: the first session

After a nervous beginning, the former PM has hit his stride.

It's the first break of the morning. Tony Blair eventually hit his stride in the questioning, but in the first few moments the previous prime minister seemed to shake with nerves, his face tense with anticipation. Chilcot gave a preamble -- this isn't "a trial", he reminded us.

Blair, tanned as ever, was soon on typical form. He half-smiled his way through many of the questions, shrugging self-deprecatingly and making jokes at his own expense ("there were no shortage of people challenging me" on Iraq, he grinned). He was keen to emphasise his preparations, too -- he'd read all his own speeches, had documents (such as the options paper) that had only just been declassified by the government, much to the obvious irritation of the inquiry panel.

The question about the Fern Britton interview was one of the few moments when Blair seemed to admit a mistake of any kind; he half-retracted what he'd said in that interview (which SIr Roderic Lyne skewered him on the timing of) about supporting the Iraq war whether WMDs were found or not. He said self-mockingly that he still had lessons to learn on handling the media.

But otherwise Blair was unquestioning in his "belief" in his strategy. After the September 11 2001 attacks, he said emphatically, everything changed. The changes weren't objectively clear, but manifested themselves in his perception of the "calculus of risk" (a phrase he used repeatedly).

He dismissed the debate over the Crawford meetings, saying he had publicly always expressed his loyalty to President Bush. In fact, he tried to give those meetings a human slant, saying how Bush had talked about his "fear" of not acting in a "strong way". He even, unnecessarily, announced his "hard line" on Iran and the danger of such a country having nuclear capability.

That is what the morning session came down to -- a sense of morality, of right and wrong (he cited Kosovo a number of times, specifically reminding the inquiry that he had acted to defend a Muslim population, as though this proved that he wasn't motivated by his Christian faith in Iraq), and of his overriding "belief" in the correct strategy despite the challenges from within cabinet.

So far, then, it has been a relatively easy ride for the former prime minister. And Blair has started to deploy his performative weapons to full effect.

The second session is now about to start . . .

 

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Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.