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 type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.