Speaker by Various Artists

Can we say "sexed up" yet?

by David Williams

So, is the Butler report "half empty" or "half full"?

To some in Britain it is half full of damning evidence against a blatant spin campaign by Tony Blair and his cronies to take the country to war on the back of some dodgy advice from the intelligence community. To others, it is half empty of blame, it doesn't expose a "smoking gun" to oust the Government and, therefore, let's all go and watch the golf.

Regarding the latter argument you need look no further than the Prime Minister himself. In an initially unapologetic tone, he told Parliament:

This report, like the Hutton inquiry, like the report of the ISC (intelligence and security committee) before it and of the FAC (foreign affairs select committee) before that, has found the same thing: no one lied; no one made up the intelligence; no one inserted things into the dossier against the advice of the intelligence services; everyone genuinely tried to do their best in good faith for the country in circumstances of acute difficulty. That issue of good faith should now be at an end.

Keep those words "good faith" in mind as we continue...

In a calculated move - flagged during his appearance in front of a committee of senior MPs last week - Blair soon conceded more ground on the weapons of mass destruction issue.

I have to accept: as the months have passed it seems increasingly clear that at the time of invasion Saddam did not have stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons ready to deploy. The second issue is therefore this: even if we acted in perfectly good faith, is it now the case that in the absence of stockpiles of weapons ready to deploy the threat was misconceived and therefore the war was unjustified? I have searched my conscience - not in a spirit of obstinacy but in genuine reconsideration in the light of what we now know - in answer to that question. And my answer would be that the evidence of Saddam's WMD was indeed less certain, less well founded than was stated at the time.

Goodness. Is Blair doing a flip-flop and taking a bite out of humble pie? In short - no, not really. He immediately countered by saying:

But I cannot honestly say I believe getting rid of Saddam was a mistake at all. Iraq, the region, the wider world, is a better and safer place without Saddam.

Same old Blair, same old rhetoric.

There have been protests, hundreds of newspaper articles and editorials written and a resignation from his Cabinet (Robin Cook) over his basis for war. They didn't want him to come back later and say, "Well, we got that WMD thing wrong but at least Saddam's gone!" (Those who think there's any point in telling him I told you so, please do so now...).

And I just can't see how he can peddle the "the world's a safer place" line and feel like he can get away with it. I don't even know how he says it with a straight face. Who feels safer? Commuters taking the Tube and buses every day? Passengers on international flights? The businessmen paying foreign mercenaries thousands of dollars a day to protect them in Baghdad? Or D, none of the above?

Back to his Parliamentary statement, it was Mr "Safer World" Blair that said for any mistakes he'd made in the lead-up to war, mistakes he'd made in good faith, though, "I of course take full responsibility". Which, following a report which didn't blame anyone, is, without doubt, totally gutless. A throw-away line.

Tory leader Michael Howard, who takes the "half full" approach, has certainly grown in stature since I left England. I remember his brave effort in the Commons in the face of a whitewash Hutton Report, still managing to sound credible and forthright following what basically amounted to the Blair government's ascendancy to heaven.

This time he had more to go on and didn't Blair know it. Instead of looking astonished, like he did after the Hutton Report when Howard didn't apologise, Blair was hunched over paying VERY close attention to a document on his knee (perhaps it was the Hutton Report).

Howard reminded everyone of Blair's unshakeable certainty of the threat from Iraq, his almost religious zeal when discussing WMD. He accused the Prime Minister of turning the "qualified judgements" of the intelligence agencies into "unqualified certainties".

Howard sought to undermine Blair's flagging credibility further: "I hope we will not face in this country another war in the foreseeable future, but if we did and you identified the threat, would the country believe you?" In many ways the intelligence services got it wrong, he said, but he questioned why Blair "chose to leave out those caveats, qualifications and cautions".

It was the battle of the heavyweights the Tory party envisaged when they ousted the ineffectual Iain Duncan Smith. Rather than having a "yee-haw!", Howard Dean moment at the report's findings, Michael Howard managed to sound level-headed and clearly defined, whilst being at his cutting best. Ominously for Blair, he is starting to sound like someone worthy of leading the country.

(Meanwhile, Liberal Democrats leader Charles Kennedy seems to have lost the plot. After four inquiries failed to finger Blair for triggering an unwarranted war, he called for another one. Go figure.)

So, to answer the original question, Was the report half empty or half full? Why, it is both, of course.

In some ways it is full; full of things the Hutton report was expected to, but didn't, find. Intelligence was flawed and misused, and the case for war was stretched to the "outer limits" (can we say "sexed up" yet?). The Government should not have included the 45-minute claim in its dossier. Crucial caveats to water down the case for war were not publicised.

Yet there is also emptiness. After all those findings it was empty of blame, which only serves to prove how empty these inquiries are - which may have been what Blair had in mind all along. Give a career bureaucrat a brief and a couple of million pounds and he may find fault, oh yes, but blame is a hard thing to come by. (Although an article in The Independent said, "it is believed the inquiry team felt Mr Blair was ultimately responsible but decided not to say so in its report.").

The report is perfectly balanced - there are enough scraps for both sides to feed on and while it smacks the Government with one hand, it massages with the other. I say it is too balanced - there's nothing to shift anyone from either the pro- or anti-war camps. So what was the point?

You could argue that if a blunder at a private company were put into the hands of an independent inquiry and some fault was found, then heads would roll. But don't blame poor Lord Butler. He was probably just acting in good faith.

I would love to be reading a copy of The Independent on Sunday this weekend. The paper has been lambasting the Prime Minister about his reasons for going to war for years, months before (during, and after) the Anglo-American alliance went to war with Iraq. It has had exhaustive reports, interviews, and devoted entire front pages to editorials in a full frontal assault on the government's justification for invading Iraq. I imagine it will not be crowing from the rooftops, though. It may, however, sadly reflect on the cost, mainly in lives, of that flawed decision and call for some accountability.