Hans Blix at the Iraq inquiry

UN weapons inspector makes clear that 2003 invasion took place despite lack of evidence and increase

The Iraq war was "illegal" and the idea that military action merely upheld UN Security Council resolutions was "absurd", the UN weapons inspector Hans Blix told the Chilcot inquiry yesterday afternoon.

Asked what he thought would have happened, had the March 2003 invasion not taken place, Blix said he would have completed the inspections and introduced proper monitoring of Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons capabilities. When pressed, he said that although he thought a diplomatic route could have been backed up by military threat, he doubted it would have involved the deployment of 250,000 men, and said the military pressure could have ensured that the inspections procedure was completed.

His own position on whether Iraq possessed WMDs at the time is rather more complex than is often thought: at the time of the "dodgy dossier" in September 2002, he said he personally expected the presence of weapons, but could not say so in his official capacity as an evidence-gatherer for the UN. He did also say at the time that he thought the dossier "plausible".

However, he changed his view in early 2003 when a scathing report produced greater Iraqi co-operation, with offers to excavate materials from the 1991 war and people involved in armament at that time offering to travel abroad for interviews. Blix says he communicated the change in his opinions to Tony Blair. He also insisted that his team was never denied access to sites, and that it was "not really" greeted by resistance or violence. If this had been the case, he said, he would have complained to the Security Council.

Despite this trend of increased co-operation throughtout the early part of 2003, Blix said he felt he could date the change in British attitude to 10 March 2003, shortly after he submitted a "working document" to the UN that Jack Straw described as "sensational", even though Blix himself felt that it provided very little new information.

Blix maintained that reports that Blair tried to get him to change his mind on the presence of WMDs in order to placate the US were false.

He felt that once his team began reporting back that no evidence had been found at any sites, the US and UK should have changed their policy -- that, he feels, is the main lesson that should be drawn from the situation. His only regret, he says, is the "harsh tones" he used in the January document, which consituted a warning to Iraq to improve co-operation, which it then did.

The issue of co-operation was the real revelation from Blix's evidence yesterday. He made it clear that the US and UK were moving towards military options despite an increased level of co-operation from the Iraqis and a lack of evidence found by the inspectors.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.