Monday 25 January 2010

Blair's 'Judgement Day' - Expect Nothing But Trouble

Make no mistake - when Tony Blair walks into the Iraq Inquiry at the end of this week, it will seem as though the room temperature has dropped a degree or two.

There is a growing hype about this Friday's appearance of the former Prime Minister and it has started to remind me of another public inquiry that seemed to promise so much and ultimately deliver so little. The public ballot for seats and the fact that 3000 people applied for tickets has undoubtedly raised levels of anticipation. But I still feel there is a great deal of wishful thinking in some sections of the press, who believe that because "the pressure on Blair will be intense", suddenly the long-cultivated mask of hubris will fall and his testimony will produce some great revelation.

Onlookers may feel a sudden chill because the inquiry's main attraction on Friday has ice-water in his veins. If there has been a common thread running through Blair's personal statements on Iraq ever since the outbreak of the war, it is this: he has convinced himself that he always does the right thing. Blair told his party conference in 2003 that "he had no regrets and would do exactly the same again" and was still insisting that "I have no regrets about removing Saddam" in 2007, even after the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the carving up of the country into sectarian factions. Absolutely no regrets? None at all? In 2009 the message remained unchanged: in his now infamous interview with Fern Britton, Blair made it clear that he would have invaded Iraq anyway, even knowing that there were no weapons of mass destruction.

I would expect a less combative presentation than the one given by Alastair 'Comical Ali' Campbell in early January, but Blair is defending his reputation as much as answering questions about policy and decision-making. What we should expect is a reappearance of his “pretty straight kind of guy” routine, what Ben Macintyre of the Times in 2005 described as "implicitly asking his listeners to set aside notions of objective truth and believe in his sincerity". On the basis of inquiry chair Sir John Chilcot's refusal to ambush witnesses, this should lead to a great day out for the media but almost certainly little else. I wish it were otherwise, but for once I think Matthew d'Ancona in the Telegraph is right about something when he says:

Blair is many things, but a stumbling, easily foxed witness is not one of them. There is not a single question the committee can throw at him that he has not answered in his head a thousand times.

The other area of hype is around the protests outside. The Times has gone into full bullshit-mode in reporting that "the demonstration will be the biggest test for Scotland Yard since the G20 protest in April last year when protesters caused millions of pounds of damage in the City" (we wish!) and is almost gleeful in its assertion that "Scotland Yard is preparing to use the controversial 'kettling' tactic". The Telegraph reports that intelligence officers (such a source of reliable information) "have picked up 'domestic chatter' suggesting his appearance warrants a high state of alert", whilst inevitably the Mail goes even further - Friday is potentially "a target for Muslim extremists raging at his decision to invade Iraq".

Even after the fallout from the G20 protests, the mainstream media has learnt little from its own role in stoking expectations of confrontation during public protests and helping to create an atmosphere of heavy-handed policing.

If the inside of the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre in Westminster on Friday turns out to less of a test than many have hoped for, events outside most certainly are for the Metropolitan Police. For the first time, we get to see whether the pledges made in last year's 'Adapting to Protest' review amount to anything but platitudes.

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