It was "savage" for Campbell. But only outside

A defiant Alastair Campbell was never going to come clean at the Iraq inquiry

It was the first big name. The scene outside the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster this morning reflected the anticipation. Photographers thronged the entrance, policemen lined the streets, television presenters perched like birds along a wall waiting to go on air. The queue for public access was the longest it had been since the Iraq inquiry had begun, said a dedicated inquiry-goer ahead of me in the queue. "Do you think he'll come clean?" one woman asked enthusiastically.

The moment Campbell stepped out of his car, he was mobbed by cameramen -- policemen had to fight them off to let him through. Once inside, I heard two inquiry staff members discussing his arrival. "It was savage," said one. "He [presumably Campbell] said it was worse than Hutton."

But Campbell, it quickly became clear, was not going to "come clean" despite prodding from the panel (mostly from Sir Roderic Lyne, who was by far the most needling and interrogative of the committee members). In fact, he was going to do what he does best: stay resolutely on-message.

Parts of the press are running the "letters" story -- that Tony Blair pledged Britain's support for the Iraq war in a series of notes (which Campbell saw) to George W Bush in the course of 2002, while publicly backing the diplomatic process. But in reality, for five hours straight, Campbell doggedly defended both the decision to go to war and the process leading up to invasion (he admitted government weakness only in the aftermath of the war).

As he put it: "I defend every single word of the dossier. I defend every single part of the process."

That's not to say he wasn't rattled, or that inconsistencies weren't thrown up by some of Lyne's more persistent lines of questioning. Campbell never thought it necessary, for example, to clarify the 45-minute claim as it was reported in a number of newspapers. (His excuse? That if he had spent all his time countering false stories in newspapers it would have absorbed him "24/7".) Nor did he see anything wrong with his chairing of the meetings that put together the case for war, despite, at the very beginning of the session, insisting that he was "not a policy person. I never was." He chaired, he said, because of the "support" he was giving John Scarlett on "presentational" aspects of the dossier.

Further questioning on the dossier only elicited Campbell's wrath, directed mostly at the media. He still seemed obsessed by Andrew Gilligan's report on the Today programme that claimed his dossier was "sexed up", constantly repeating his belief that the only reason why people questioned the dossier was the hyped-up media reporting. Clearly his contempt for journalism in this country hasn't abated, either (he complained of "conspiracy theories" published in the Guardian yesterday).

By contrast, Campbell's loyalty to Blair, in his defence of the previous prime minister's "conviction" about Iraq, was passionate. But he also turned to Blair to help him in his stickiest moments -- as Lyne challenged him over the dossier's claim that the intelligence was "beyond doubt", Campbell tellingly shifted the focus. It was the then prime minister's "belief", and fundamentally his final "judgement", that Iraq was a growing threat. He was loyal, unquestionably, but his evidence also set the stage for Blair's appearance before the inquiry later this month.

Campbell was a strange combination of vague and pugilistic. He veered from not being able to recall meetings or conversations (even some of the most important, such as the conference between Bush and Blair at Crawford) to bullishly recounting the exact dates of media reports and their contents. He quibbled about semantics or the "philosophical" question of how you define the UN.

But, over and above it all, he was adamant: he would defend the course of events that led to the invasion of Iraq until the "end of his days". Not only that, but Britain and her people should be "proud" of what we did. The shaking heads in the public audience didn't seem to agree.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.