Having duped us into war, the prime minister must be held to account
Adam Price MP
New Labour, new politics - that was the promise. In Blair's own words in his first speech as leader to the Labour party conference: "It means being open. It means telling it like it is. Let's be honest. Straight. Those most in need of hope deserve the truth."
Now, almost a decade later, his words sound like self-parody. And yet there remains a certain resonance about them. Truth is the foundation of democracy. Without truth, there can be no trust, and without trust, politics loses its very legitimacy. And that is the tragedy of what has befallen us all in the last three years of this premiership - alongside the personal tragedies of the 64 British service personnel and 13,000 Iraqis who have paid the highest price for what has become the cruellest of deceptions.
Faced with this charge of having duped us into war, the prime minister responds with a certain injured innocence: "Are people questioning my integrity? Are they saying I lied?" Of course, professional communicators such as the prime minister almost never tell lies. For the most part it's perfectly easy to mislead the public without resorting to that. As Robin Cook wrote in his diary, Blair was "far too clever" for that. Rather than allege there was a real link between Saddam and Bin Laden "he deliberately crafted a suggestive phrase designed to create the impression that British troops were going to Iraq to fight a threat from al-Qaida".
There is more than one way not to tell the truth: half-truths, omissions and deliberate ambiguities can be just as effective as crude lies if the mission is to mislead. All this would still be in the realm of conjecture, of course, if it had not been for the death of David Kelly and Bush's decision to have his own inquiry. Without these unforeseen events we would never have had access to the information revealed through the Butler and Hutton inquiries.
But we do. We now know what Blair knew, and when he knew it, and the contrast with his public statements at the time, which are set out in the report, A Case To Answer, by Dan Plesch and Glen Rangwala, published today. It's on the basis of that report that I am prepared to state - unprotected by parliamentary privilege, unfettered by the rules of parliamentary language and without equivocation - that the prime minister did not tell the truth. Instead he exaggerated, distorted, suppressed and manipulated the information for political ends. This was an organised deception to win over a sceptical parliament and public to the military action he had long ago promised his ally Mr Bush.
The evidence for Blair's duplicity is overwhelming. He claimed in early 2002 that Iraq had "stockpiles of major amounts of chemical and biological weapons" while the assessment of the joint intelligence committee at the time was that Iraq "may have hidden small quantities of agents and weapons". He told the TUC in September 2002 that Saddam "had enough chemical and biological weapons remaining to devastate the entire Gulf region", while the intelligence assessment was that "Saddam has not succeeded in seriously threatening his neighbours".
Blair displayed the most despicable cynicism of all when he warned that "it is a matter of time, unless we act and take a stand before terrorism and weapons of mass destruction come together", even though the government was later forced to admit to the Butler inquiry that "the JIC assessed that any collapse of the Iraqi regime would increase the risk of chemical and biological warfare technology or agents finding their way into the hands of terrorists, and that the prime minister was aware of this". He knew the nightmare scenario he painted would be more, not less, likely if we invaded Iraq, yet he gave the opposite impression to translate anxiety into support for the war.
If he was guilty of mismanagement, miscalculation or mere mistakes then the proper place to hold him to account would be the ballot box. Deliberate misrepresentation, however, is what marks this prime minister out. When Peter Mandelson caused "incorrect information" to be given to the house, and Beverley Hughes admitted giving a "misleading impression", they resigned in accordance with the ministerial code, which states: "Ministers who knowingly mislead parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the prime minister". Unfortunately, the code is silent on what to do with a miscreant prime minister.
His refusal to resign in the face of such evidence is unprecedented. There are strong indications, detailed in the report, that he made a secret agreement with President Bush which is illegal under constitutional law. Yet there are to be no further enquiries, no further comment from the prime minister, and no hope of ever seeing the attorney general's full advice. A motion of no confidence would simply divide the house on party lines and fail to focus on the actions of Blair. And, as John Baron MP recently discovered, accusing another member of misleading the house is deemed "unparliamentary".
Accountability is the lifeblood of democracy. Why should the public bother getting involved in politics if ministers can lead us into war on a false prospectus and not even utter a single word of apology? So what remedy do parliament and people have in these desperate circumstances? Historically, impeachment has been used by parliament against individuals to punish "high crimes and misdemeanours".