There was a time when retired Prime Ministers enjoyed a broad measure of respect and even admiration when leaving office. They were, invariably, elderly gents (Thatcher aside) who were left in peace to pen their memoirs and inflate their achievements.
But our premiers are getting younger and we, the voting public, are less deferential and certainly more cynical. Once, what went on in government stayed in government. Now, the decisions they take in office are starting to follow them out of Number Ten’s famous black door. As Tony Blair is finding out to his cost.
Next Friday, he appears as a witness at the Foreign Affairs Committee to face questions about his dealings with Colonel Gaddafi. Blair famously struck up an unlikely rapport with the Libyan tyrant, bringing him back into the diplomatic mainstream in 2004 in exchange for eschewing Libya’s nuclear and chemical weapons programmes.
Not a bad exchange, it would seem, and surely a hundred times preferable to the anarchy that currently besets the country following Gaddafi’s overthrow in 2011. The session will cover UK foreign policy towards Libya during Blair’s period as PM, and although the inquiry is also examining ‘the UK’s future policy options’ towards Libya, it is likely to reduce to Blair defending his dealings with the now dead dictator.
There’s a pattern emerging here. Back in January, Blair faced similar retro-scrutiny by the Conservative and Unionist-dominated Northern Ireland Committee over his handling of the so-called “on-the-runs” – wanted republican prisoners who had evaded capture during The Troubles. Some had been sent “comfort letters,” reassuring them that the authorities were no longer interested in pursuing them. The committee wanted to know why, overlooking the fact, it seemed, that the move was a small price to pay in the context of finding a workable settlement in Northern Ireland.
Last month, the committee chairman, Conservative Laurence Robertson, wrote to Blair asking him to set out what he knows about the compensation deal agreed by the US with Libya over the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. (No similar pay-out has been forthcoming for victims of IRA bombings, some of which made use of Libyan-supplied Semtex). Again, Blair may be called to turn-up and give evidence.
For good measure, Robertson has also written to Gordon Brown, asking what he knew about the deal, adding, pointedly, ‘if he was aware of any role played by Tony Blair’ in settling the US-Libya claim.
For Blair, the great performer, these encounters are a chance to show-pony against the dullards who usually sit on such committees, (even if he would prefer not to have an emerging second career explaining his first one). The real heat he faces – a veritable open furnace door – comes from Sir John Chilcot’s two million word report into Iraq, due to be published next summer. No amount of nifty rhetorical parrying will save him from the forensic criticisms he is likely to face, (nor from the bile of professional Blair-haters).
It’s all very different to how it used to be. There was no attempt by previous parliamentary committees to invite Baroness Thatcher in for a grilling, so hostile MPs could run the rule over her secret backchannel communications with the IRA. While publicly professing that she would ‘never talk to terrorists’, she sanctioned a secret dialogue from the time of the Hunger Strikes in 1981.
Nor did she come in for much scrutiny from the then foreign affairs committee over the circumstances surrounding the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands. Indeed, the Franks Committee established to examine the decisions taken by ministers prior to the war, ended up as little more than a perfunctory canter through the issues, concluding that the Argentinian aggression “could not have been foreseen.”
So much so that former Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, described the final report as a “whitewash”. (After all, if anyone is going to look benignly on the difficult choices facing a prime minister it’s a committee of former senior civil servants and cabinet ministers).
So what clangers, dropped during his (eventual) decade as prime minister, will David Cameron face questioning about in a few years’ time? There’s his own record on dealing with Libya to start with, especially his naïve assumption that peace and harmony would follow the overthrow of Gadaffi in 2011. Perhaps, also, his unfolding policy towards Syria?
Then there’s his potentially disastrous handling of our relationship with the EU. As we face the very real prospect of leaving, what warnings has he ignored about the effects of wilfully offering up a referendum on our membership to placate his divided party?
We can only speculate. But as Cameron is notoriously weak on detail, the list of issues that have crossed his desk, meriting only a quick skim-read, must be endless. After all, our chillaxing premier needs time for his regular fix of Angry Birds.