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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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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