This was the day that Jeremy Corbyn would call for Tony Blair to be tried for war crimes – or so advance speculation suggested. But in the event, the former prime minister wasn’t even mentioned in Corbyn’s statement on the Chilcot report. Despite claims to the contrary, the Labour leader had always stated that he would only demand Blair’s prosecution if the inquiry provided the necessary evidence. It didn’t – and was never going to. As Chilcot stated this morrning: “The inquiry has not expressed a view on whether military action was legal.”
But Corbyn did note that the war has “long been regarded as illegal by the overwhelming weight of international legal opinion”. He also stated that “the House was misled in the run-up to the war” and that those responsible “should face up to the consequences of their actions, whatever they may be”. To many that sounded like an endorsement of future action against Blair. Corbyn, we are told, will have “more to say” in a speech to miltiary families and protesters at 5pm.
The Labour leader’s calm and succinct statement was one of his best moments in the House. He paid appropriate tribute to the late Robin Cook, who resigned from the cabinet over the war in 2003. “[He] stood over there and said in a few hundred words what has been confirmed by this report in more than two million,” Corbyn remarked. He rightly noted that he and others “campaigned against the Iraqi government in its most bloody period” while the US and UK treated Saddam as a client. There were gasps, however, when he accused the western coalition of a “colonial-style occupation”.
Those Labour MPs who voted for the war watched uncomfortably as Corbyn spoke (former shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn shook his head). Ian Austin, one of his fiercest backbench critics, called on him to “sit down and shut up” (“you’re a disgrace”) after he described the war as “illegal”. But this was a far less fractious occasion than many anticipated. After the vote of no confidence in him by 81 per cent of Labour MPs, some will wonder this was Corbyn’s swansong.
In his preceding statement, David Cameron, who voted for the war, largely restated the report’s conclusions. While acknowledging that he and others must take “responsibility”, he emphasised that the inquiry did not find evidence of a “deliberate” attempt to mislead MPs. The most significant section of his statement was a defence of military interventionism (“It would also be wrong to conclude our military are not capable of intervening successfully”). He hailed Kosovo and Sierra Leone as “succcesful” actions and condemned the failure to act in the cases of Rwanda and Srebrenica. He made a vigorous defence of Atlanticism and “the special relationship.” “It remains the case that Britain and America share the same fundamental values and Britain has no greater friend or ally in the world than America,” Cameron said. While the US was not “always right”, he denounced Corbyn and others for believing that it was “always wrong”.
We are left with the irony that while the Labour leader is set to apologise for the Iraq war (for which he bears no responsibility), Cameron (who does) will not. When Green MP Caroline Lucas urged him to do so, the Prime Minister merely replied that he didn’t “see the point” of replaying old arguments. After Chilcot’s excoriating report, he will find little support for that view today.