21 Jan 2015

Chilcot inquiry: Whitehall mutterings and political blame game

Tim Farron, in one of his first high profile outings as Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman for the election, has been laying into senior figures from the Labour government for “using the process … to protect themselves … and perhaps water down” the Chilcot report.

That could be seen as a touch unfair if you’re one of the witnesses.

I understand that Tony Blair didn’t get his letter advising him of criticisms until “very, very recently” and may yet still not have received the relevant documents on which the criticisms are based.

The “Salmon” letters from the Iraq Inquiry team inviting comment on criticism have gone out on a staggered basis starting last autumn.

The Inquiry appears to have posted letters to the less prominent witnesses first. It’s been suggested this was to make sure they had the underpinnings in place to send out the later letters to the bigger fish.

Mr Blair was walking awkwardly on thick ice as he was door-stepped at the Davos gathering in Switzerland. He simply referred reporters to a statement in which he condemned “incorrect allegations and politically motivated speculation” and said “it is not true to say that Tony Blair has caused the delay … on the contrary, he regrets this delay …”

There are mutterings from senior Whitehall figures about how the Inquiry has organised its workload.

One veteran Whitehall figure said the big mistake was not going for two reports – one on the path to war, which could have been published much earlier, and another on the war itself and the aftermath.

Other Whitehall figures have suggested the team was “disorganised” over its declassification requests. The Inquiry team has long let is be known that it is looking into a massive span of time (Bloody Sunday was one day, they point out) and their priority is getting it right and following proper process.

Nick Clegg and co have been known to agonise about process, but today that’s not their theme.

The Lib Dems believe a rare moment to re-connect with the voters has presented itself. Those who opposed the Iraq War need to be reminded, they feel, that the Lib Dems were there with them, while a Labour government – supported by a Tory opposition – backed military action.

At Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron was trying to deflect the flak towards the Labour benches. Ed Miliband, he said, voted four times between October 2006 and March 2009 against calls for an inquiry into Iraq. He shared the blame for the fact the conclusions were taking so long to come out, David Cameron said.

The Salmon letters vary how much time they give lawyers to respond depending on the gravity and range of the criticisms. One witness suggested his letter required a response in 28 days, and his and other lawyers had responded that was unreasonable and a reply was bound to take longer.

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