The Iraq Inquiry: Alastair Campbell's masterful performance

January 13, 2010
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By the end of his six hour cross examination by the Iraq Inquiry panel this week Alastair Campbell must have felt as if he had been, in Dennis Healy's immortal phrase, “savaged by a dead sheep”. Arriving at the Chilcot Inquiry, the bags under his eyes suggested that Tony Blair's former communications and strategy director might have suffered a few sleepless nights. But by the end of his 'grilling' by an ineffectual panel, he seemed relaxed and was clearly enjoying the opportunity of setting out his version of history unchallenged.

His performance was masterful, simultaneously playing down his role in the decision to go to war whilst at the same time making it clear that he was present at every step of the way. While he may have been involved in all the meetings with cabinet, intelligence chiefs and US politicians, he was only responsible for communications and not for policy. While he may have put the sexed-up dossier together, any changes made to it were entirely down to Sir John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, and it was the media who were to blame for writing misleading headlines claiming that Iraqi chemical and biological weapons that could reach a British base in Cyprus. Tony Blair may have been forced to engage in an illegal war but that was only after the French “pulled the plug” on a legal route by stating that they would not support a second UN resolution under any circumstances.

Campbell's repeated accusations that the French had been ultimately to blame for the failure of the UN path has been the British Government line ever since February 2003 when it became clear that a second UN resolution would not be passed. None of the panel pointed out to Campbell thatother Security Council members would not have backed a second resolution and that the words of President Chirac had actually been that France would “vote no because she considers this evening that there are no grounds for waging war”.

Apart from Sir Roderic Lyne, the panel were abject in their failure to challenge Campbell. Presided over by an avuncular Lord Chilcot, Baroness Prashar stuck doggedly to her list of pre-prepared questions and Sir Martin Gilbert, who had once suggested that Blair and Bush would be viewed by history like Churchill and Roosevelt, grinned at Campbell throughout. However even, if Campbell had been rigorously cross-examined, it is unlikely that the style or content of what he had to say would have differed greatly. Indeed, there was something refreshing in Campbell's upfront bluntness and defiance.

Up until now the Iraq Inquiry has had to endure the unedifying spectacle of Tony Blair's key civil servants queuing up to denounce their former boss. Whilst the principled few did resign, the vast majority of Whitehall mandarins chose career over scruples and were instrumental in implementing and spinning the country headline into war. Sir Ken MacDonald, Tony Blair's former Director of Public Prosecutions recently said that it was the failure of “the governing class” to speak truth to power that allowed Tony Blair to lead the country to war without recognising that the governing class includes all those in government at the time.

But when it came to Alastair Campbell's testimony there was no 'j'accuse' and there was certainly no 'mea culpa'. Rather than seeing Britain's involvement in the unlawful and misguided invasion of Iraq as one of the most shameful and damaging episodes in post-war British history, Campbell stuck to his guns. “I think that Britain as a country should feel incredibly proud” he said before sweeping out the room.