Tony Blair’s case for war in Iraq went “beyond the facts” in a way that caused long-term damage to public trust in politics, Sir John Chilcot has told MPs.
But the former Labour Prime Minister’s “sheer psychological dominance” of his Cabinet meant that few ministers challenged him or the legal advice on the eve of the conflict, Chilcot said.
Speaking for the first time since the publication of his damning report into the 2003 war, the former civil servant came his closest yet to saying Blair spun the evidence when he claimed Saddam Hussein posed a ‘real and present danger’ to the UK.
He told the Commons Liaison Committee that there was “no imminent threat” to Britain and that it was not “reasonable” for the former PM to put an “inflection” on the caveated intelligence.
Chilcot insisted that he was not saying Blair had “deliberately” “spread falsehoods”, but felt he behaved more like a lawyer and politician rather than “laying the real issues and information” before Parliament and public.
And he said that Blair “should have sought fact-based advice” before finally concluding that Saddam was in breach of UN resolutions and giving the UK military the go-ahead for action.
In a two-and-half hour session, Chilcot was asked if trust in politics had been corroded because MPs were sold an argument that could not reasonably be supported by the evidence.
He replied: “I think when a government or the leader of a government presents a case with all the powers of advocacy that he or she can command, and in doing so goes beyond what the facts of the case and the basic analysis of that can support, then it does damage politics, yes.”
Chilcot added that he “can only imagine” it would take a long time to repair the voters’ trust in their politicians.
Referring to Blair’s infamous speech to the House of Commons on the eve of war, he said that “the evidence to support it was more qualified than he gave expression to”.
“A speech was made in advocate’s terms and putting the best possible inflection on the description that he used,” he added.
“I absolve him from a personal and demonstrable decision to deceive Parliament or the public, to state falsehoods knowing them to be false.
“However, he also exercised his very considerable powers of advocacy and persuasion rather than laying the real issues and the information to back the analysis of them fairly and squarely in front of either Parliament or the public. It was an exercise in advocacy.”
Chilcot underlined repeatedly how much he was struck by how few members of the Blair Cabinet challenged their Prime Minister, apart from the late Robin Cook, who quit in protest.
He said that “sofa government” meant that the Cabinet was often sidelined.
Asked by Labour MP Iain Wright if Blair viewed himself as a latter-day King Louis XIV – who had famously said ‘I am the State’ – Chilcot replied: “I observed what can be described in that way. I think it reached a high point in Mr Blair’s prime ministership”.
Chilcot said that he had gleaned from former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that the Cabinet failed to challenge the PM because he had won two general elections.
“Tony Blair had, as leader of the opposition and in government, rescued his party from a dire predicament. I had the sense from Straw’s answer that he had achieved a personal and political dominance, a sheer psychological dominance.
“’He [Blair] had been right. Was he not right this time?’ That’s what I took from Mr Straw’s evidence.”
On the vexed issue of the ‘missing’ weapons of mass destruction (WMD) Chilcot also concluded that undocumented destruction and despatch of weapons took place on a vast scale after the first Gulf war.
Many people thought the gap between what was recorded as being destroyed and what Saddam had was seen as “a hidden arsenal”. “It was nothing of the sort. It was an accounting problem, quite simply”.
Speaking after the session, Treasury Select Committee chairman Andrew Tyrie said: “Sir John’s evidence confirmed what many of us have long suspected – in making his case for war, Mr Blair went beyond the facts.
“In doing so Mr Blair eroded the trust of the electorate in its leaders, a shocking legacy.”