The high ceilings of Admiralty House in Whitehall made Tony Blair seem smaller than usual when he walked in to deliver his full response to the Chilcot Report this afternoon.
With red eyes, a croaky voice and a stern frown, the former Prime Minster – who used to stride the world stage as US President George W Bush’s right hand man – seemed a diminished figure as he stepped up to the podium.
Blair, who has always retained a Peter Pan quality, looked closer to his real age – now 63 – than he has before.
Staring over the heads of the seated journalists, Blair looked down the camera and began his reading from his more than 6,400 words-long statement.
Yes, the intelligence statements turned out to be wrong.
Yes, the aftermath of the invasion was more hostile, protracted and bloody than we thought it would be.
Yes, Iraqis are now having to battle terrorism where we planned for a peaceful democracy.
“For all of this I express more sorrow, regret and apology and in greater measure than you can ever know or may believe,” he said.
Hanging in the air was a vital “but” – just like the “but” in the 2002 memo to George W Bush in which he told the US President “I will be with you, whatever. But this is the moment to assess bluntly the difficulties.”
Today’s “but” was Blair’s case for the defence, and he delivered it forensically:
- Saddam Hussein was a terrible and bloody dictator who had used chemical weapons on his own people;
- The terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 had put America on a war footing;
- There were fears the Al-Qaeda would get hold of weapons of mass destruction – the very weapons intelligence reports were claiming Saddam Hussein had stockpiled;
- The US President – the leader of the UK’s closest ally – wanted our help to remove a threat to global security.
“I ask you to put yourselves in my shoes as Prime Minister,” Blair pleaded, before adding: “You have at least to consider the possibility of a 9/11 here in Britain. And your primary responsibility as PM is to protect your country.”
The more Blair talked, the taller he seemed to become. Some of the old certainty came back as he tore through the ways he had tried to stop the invasion.
“There was no rush to war,” he claimed. Instead, Blair persuaded Bush to go down the UN route; to persevere with weapons inspectors; to try and build an international coalition through the Security Council.
Bush and Blair weren’t the ones not playing by the rules – that was Saddam Hussein.
If only he had obliged by UN Resolution 1441 then war would have been avoided.
All those troops just sitting on the edge of Iraq, waiting for the green light, would have stood down.
But Saddam didn’t. Despite the Chilcot Report, we still don’t quite know what it was that Saddam specifically did which provoked the invasion in March 2003.
According to Sir John’s speech today: “On 14 March, [Lord Goldsmith - Attorney General] asked Mr Blair to confirm that Iraq had committed further material breaches as specified in resolution 1441. Mr Blair did so the next day. However, the precise basis on which Mr Blair made that decision is not clear.
He went on: “Lord Goldsmith should have been asked to provide written advice explaining how, in the absence of a majority in the Security Council, Mr Blair could take that decision.”
Blair pushed on with his statement, saying he has for more than half a decade “apologised for the inaccurate intelligence” which led to the invasion, but he would not apologise for the invasion itself.
The action taken was legal, he argued.
With his case for the defence ended, he began taking questions from journalists. Every hack present got to quiz the former PM – some even asked two questions.
Adam Boulton from Sky News put to Blair a request from one of the families of a soldier who died in Iraq: “Look me in the eye and tell me you did not mislead the nation.”
Staring down the camera, Blair said: “I can look not just the families, but the nation in the eye and say ‘I did not misled this country, I made the decision in good faith on the information I had at the time and I believe it is better that we took that decision. I acknowledge all the problems that came with that decision, I acknowledge the mistakes and accept responsibility for them’.
“But what I cannot do and I will not do is say ‘I believe we took the wrong decision.’
“I believe I made the right decision and the world is better and safer as a result of it.”
Blair had now livened up, and was speaking quicker: “As this report makes clear, and it does when you go through it, there were no lies, there was no deceit, there was no deception but there was a decision, and it was a controversial decision – a decision to remove Saddam and a decision to be with America.”
ITV’s Rageh Omaar, who became a household name in 2003 thanks to his reporting from Baghdad, tried his best to pin Blair down over why the UK needed to be involved in the invasion at all when Bush was so determined to act regardless of our actions
“Your choice…was to plunge us, this country, for 14, 15 years of this agony. You could have said ‘no, I’m going to continue with the UN’, and Saddam would have been gone anyway,” the journalist asked, leaning forward from his front row seat.
“Well hang on a minute,” Blair replied, before talking of the important role UK forces played in the conflict.
He claimed he couldn’t continue with the UN as “diplomacy had been exhausted” and their was an “impasse” at the Security Council.
Omaar came back to Blair, and tried to get a fourth and even fifth question in before other hacks in the room made it clear they too wanted to quiz the former PM.
As the questioning went on, Blair returned to his familiar refrain: what would have happened if he hadn’t had backed the war?
Would America have gone in alone? Would Saddam have remained in charge of Iraq and obtained weapons of mass destruction? Would the world be a less safe place that it is now?
He repeatedly challenged journalists, and the Chilcot inquiry itself, to answer those questions – knowing they could not.
After two hours of speaking, Blair ended by disputing the notion that his actions over Iraq had planted the seed for a mistrust of politicians which blossomed into a full rebellion in last month’s EU referendum vote.
“I think that’s enough, thank you,” Blair concluded, now fully regenerated to his full international statesman demeanor.
Questions answered, points made, defence set out, he left the room, leaving his copy of the Chilcot Inquiry’s Executive Summary – complete with his notes sticking out from the well-thumbed pages – discarded on a table.