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Friday, 5 March 2010

5 March 2010

I’ve just finished watching Gordon Brown give evidence to the Chilcot committee on Iraq. In summary, he said this:

 We did the right thing for the right reasons.
 I regret all the lives that were lost, both military and civilian
 I gave the military all the money they asked for.

If you’re bored by the Iraq inquiry, you can stop reading now. If, like me, you think it’s a remarkable political exercise – watching a prime minister in office being questioned on live television by members of an inquiry team that he himself set up – then I hope you’ll read on.

Let’s remember, though, that if Mr Brown had had his way, we wouldn’t have seen any of this, because his original idea was that it wouldn’t be held in public.

To me, the key moments today were when he insisted, again and again, that he never turned down a request for extra cash from the military. That’s not what former MoD officials and military chiefs have said – they certainly remember being told they couldn’t have all the cash they wanted. (We’re going to try to reconcile these two versions of history in tonight’s programme.)

But I was also fascinated to compare Gordon Brown’s approach to the committee with Tony Blair’s in January. From Mr Blair, we got passion and conviction; from Mr Brown, a calculated defence of a position that he only rarely defended publicly at the time.

For a man who is said not to be the most subtle political operator on the planet, I thought he turned in an unexpectedly subtle performance. He didn’t try to distance himself from Mr Blair overtly – but there were moments when, if you were listening carefully, you could hear him tip-toeing away from the Blair position.

“I never subscribed to what you might call the neo-conservative proposition that somehow, at the barrel of a gun, overnight liberty or democracy could be conjured up,” he said. Unlike whom, would you say?

“We have learned the lessons of informality in government,” he said. Although to be fair, he did say that Tony Blair learned those lessons too.

As for that contentious legal advice from the attorney-general, who at the last moment assured the Cabinet that going to war in Iraq would be legal, despite his earlier reservations, No, he hadn’t known about all the detailed discussions that had preceded it – but it didn’t matter, because the final “unequivocal” advice was that the war would be legal.

When the Chilcot inquiry report comes to be written, it won’t deal with stylistic or thespian differences between Britain’s two leading political figures. Judging by the way the questioning has been going, it’ll deal mainly with how decisions were made, and how the way the government works should be improved.

Not really surprising, because that’s what it has been asked to do. But after today’s evidence from Mr Brown, I wonder whether it’ll have anything to say about how closely a Chancellor of the Exchequer should be involved in the detailed political discussions that precede a decision to go to war.

Gordon Brown portrayed himself as a man who viewed his role very largely as being confined to finding a way to pay for it all. And who, by and large, was perfectly happy for that to be the case.

By the way, you may have seen that the interview we broadcast with William Hague about Lord Ashcroft on Wednesday’s programme created a bit of a stir. If you missed it, it’s still available via Listen Again on the website, or via my Facebook page.

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