17 July 2004
If the Prime Minister had hoped for "closure" on Iraq following the Butler Committee report, the voters of Birmingham and Leicester have told him in no uncertain terms that he won't get it.
Of course Iraq and the failure to find WMD are not the only reasons for the anti-Blair vote so dramatically demonstrated in these two by-elections. The state of public services and local concerns also played a part. Nor should anything detract from the achievement of the Liberal Democrats, who fought a determined and well-organised campaign in both seats. It was only the intervention of George Galloway's Respect party that prevented them from gaining Birmingham Hodge Hill to cap their victory in Leicester South.
The Lib Dem leader, Charles Kennedy, had every right to declare as the results came in that this was "no flash in the pan". Psephologists might argue about the size of the swing and the difference between by- and full elections. But the fact is that, in these two votes, as in other recent results, the Lib Dems have shown that they can unseat a ruling Labour majority as much as a Tory one. That is bad news for the Conservatives, for whom this was a truly terrible result.
And the war has to have played the major role. In Leicester and Birmingham the Lib Dems gained from their anti-war stance. The Tories failed at least in part because of their support for it. This should temper some of the Labour Government hopes that the results bode well for them in a general election. A move to third party politics could yet hold bigger implications than the traditional analysis would warrant. It also makes a mockery of the smugness of the Prime Minister and his closest supporters in the Commons on Wednesday and in the interviews that followed.
"I take full responsibility," declared the Prime Minister opening the debate on Butler. Whether he would have accepted that burden had Lord Butler been more censorious in his conclusions is a moot point. Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke did at the BBC. But politicians take a different approach. But even though Lord Butler absolved Tony Blair of the charge of having deliberately distorted the intelligence in the run-up to war, the information he has provided will keep Mr Blair's critics and the interested observer in ammunition for months.
The picture painted by Lord Butler of the quality of intelligence used as the argument for going to war - the way it was marshalled in the infamous September dossier and the subsequent unravelling of the sources - is a damning one. Tony Blair gave no indication, in accepting the report, of just how he would be responding to the devastating criticism of the intelligence and what reforms he now proposes.
Indeed by appointing John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, to replace Sir Richard Dearlove as head of MI6 several months in advance of the Butler report, the Prime Minister was deliberately pre-empting its findings. It is to be hoped that when it announces the appointment of the new chairman of the JIC, No 10 will not show the same insouciance.
Nor can the Prime Minister continue to be quite as impervious as he has shown himself so far to the implications of the narrative of intelligence now presented by the Butler Committee. In presenting the case for war, Tony Blair made much of the shocking nature of the "intelligence which crossed my desk". Yet we now find out that much of this intelligence was based on last-minute additions from individual sources who later proved "unsafe" if not positively disingenuous.
The later retraction of evidence by the intelligence services, however, was never passed on to the Commons, to its committees or the Hutton inquiry. The crucial retraction was in July, two months before the Intelligence and Security Committee, which concluded that the claims about Saddam's WMD were based on "convincing intelligence". Had it known then what the intelligence services already knew, that one of the chief sources could not be relied on, would the committee have reached the same conclusion?
Most shocking of all, No 10 yesterday declared that the Prime Minister himself became aware of the retractions only when Lord Butler reported this week. Which must raise doubts not just about the behaviour of the intelligence community but also the Government's grip on them.
No 10's tendency is to dismiss all this as cavilling by the liberal media of little interest to the voters. That may have an element of truth so far as the detailed argument is concerned. But the Prime Minister is quite wrong if he thinks that the public has ceased its interest in the subject. The simple fact is that the public, and Parliament, was persuaded to support a war on the basis of a threat that has since proved overstated and largely incorrect. It is not only those who opposed the war from the start but also those persuaded of the cases at the time who feel betrayed and misled.
To say, as the Prime Minister does, that you fully accept responsibility for the decisions but then do not own up the flaws and weaknesses of the information now exposed by Lord Butler defies all logic. Whatever the sincerity of his arguments at the time, he owes the country an explanation, and an apology, for the mistakes made. If the Prime Minister really thinks that accepting responsibility for all and owing up to nothing is the way to closure, he should refer to the voters of Birmingham and Leicester. They did not think so. Nor does much of the rest of the country.