25 January 2004
Tony Blair faces the toughest few days of his political career. On Tuesday MPs vote on the hugely controversial introduction of top-up fees for universities. The day after the vote, Lord Hutton publishes his eagerly awaited report. This intense sequence of events could fatally undermine the Prime Minister's authority. Yet both the vote in the Commons and Lord Hutton's verdict pale into insignificance compared with the latest astonishing statement from David Kay, the head of the Iraq Survey Group, who resigned from his post on Friday.
Mr Kay, who is close to the Bush administration, declared he did not believe that Saddam had produced weapons of mass destruction on a large scale since 1991, or that there were stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq. For Mr Blair this is a more damning statement than any conclusions likely to be reached by Lord Hutton. In the near-hysteria leading up to the publication of the report, we should not forget Lord Hutton's limited remit. He has not been asked to make a judgment on why Mr Blair took Britain to war. His task is to reach conclusions about the suicide of Dr David Kelly, a personal tragedy but a relatively marginal event in the context of the disastrous conflict.
In contrast, Mr Kay has blown away Mr Blair's justification for invading Iraq. Mr Blair repeatedly asserted in the build-up to war that Saddam's weapons posed a growing and current threat. On that basis he took the biggest decision open to a prime minister, sending British troops to fight and, in many cases, to lose their lives. Before the war started The Independent on Sunday questioned the accuracy of the intelligence presented with such persistent urgency. We did not believe such speculative and notoriously unreliable evidence should be the basis for an unprecedented pre-emptive strike. Thousands of people were killed in the subsequent war. The conflict also undermined the United Nations, divided the European Union, destabilised Iraq and fuelled the threat of terrorism. Now we have confirmation from the most authoritative source possible that Britain took part on a false premise.
This newspaper was not alone in its opposition to the war. Robin Cook, who had seen much of the intelligence when he was a cabinet minister, knew it to be unreliable. Privately, many ministers were doubtful about Mr Blair's rush to war. Only the Prime Minister was determined to parade the alarming intelligence as if it were unquestionably accurate. There were no qualifications in his statements; as far as he was concerned, Saddam was a threat that had to be dealt with. Absurdly, Mr Blair continues to insist that Saddam possessed the weapons. Only last week at Prime Minister's Question Time he claimed that the evidence would be found. His stubbornness in the face of reality only undermines his authority further.
In this respect there is a connection with the dramatic events of the next few days. Some Labour MPs are understandably fed up with receiving prime ministerial lectures on the importance of top-up fees when Mr Blair got it so wrong on weapons of mass destruction. Mr Blair is a crusading politician who can crusade no longer with any credibility. He must come clean about the reasons for going to war and admit that he made a colossal misjudgement about the scale of the threat posed by Iraq. This will not be easy for him to do. However, the alternative strategy of continuing to insist that the weapons will turn up and playing for time in the hope that we all forget about the weapons is even worse. It makes him look at best absurdly self-deluding and at worst grotesquely dishonest. He will have no authority on other big issues if he does not address the biggest of them all - why he almost single-handedly took Britain to war.
The debate about top-up fees matters. The role of the BBC and the means by which Dr Kelly's name became public matter also. The fact that Britain went to war on a false premise matters much, much more.