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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.