Short devastates Blair

By Alex Stevenson and Ian Dunt

Clare Short has savaged Tony Blair and his style of government in a disarming and provocative witness session at the Iraq inquiry.

Her attacks have also focused on Alastair Campbell, Lord Goldsmith and the legal advice that paved the way to war.

Analysts had expected Ms Short, who resigned from Cabinet in protest at the war, to be outspoken, but her level of honesty and plain-speaking still shocked observers as she laid into target after target.

The former international development secretary told Sir John Chilcot’s panel that a “deliberate blockage” of normal Cabinet discussions took place in the run-up to the Iraq inquiry.

“Everything that has happened since makes me know that there was deliberate blockage,” she said.

“The normal structure of Whitehall communications started to close down.”

Ms Short said Cabinet discussions were limited to “little chats” in which “Jack [Straw, foreign secretary] would make a few jokes”.

Committee member Sir Roderic Lyne noted that other witnesses had pointed out the most important element was that “policy on Iraq was being discussed intensively with the relevant people”.

Ms Short replied: “I believe in the old-fashioned civil service way of running things. I think ministers should be in charge of their department but all voices should come to the table… you improve things by that kind of discussion.

“The government didn’t act like that. Power is pulled into No 10, everything is announced to the media. The House of Commons is a rubber-stamp… I think the machinery of government in Britain now is unsafe. It leads to endless litigation.

“In the case of Iraq there was secretiveness and deception on top of that.”

Ms Short said she had been excluded from discussions on Iraq because of her willingness to openly disagree with Mr Blair during Cabinet meetings.

“That’s the way No 10 worked. You keep Tony’s favour and Alastair [Campbell] doesn’t brief against you,” she said.

On Mr Campbell – the prime minister’s director of communications at the time – she said: “He and I never got on. I didn’t obey him. He would brief against you and that how the government worked.”

Ms Short attacked the ‘sofa’ style of government adopted by No 10. Last Friday, Mr Blair told the Iraq inquiry “ad-hoc committees” helped develop Iraq policy.

“I simply don’t accept that,” she said. “There were no minutes. It’s just not a proper way to proceed. I think this is a chaotic way of doing things.”

Ms Short then attacked the former attorney general, who prompted controversy by seemingly changing his mind over the legality of the war.

“He misled the Cabinet, he certainly misled me,” she said.

Speaking about the moment he read out his legal advice to the Cabinet, Ms Short said: “He started reading it out and then he says ‘that’s it’. I said, ‘that’s extraordinary, why is it so late? Did you change your mind?’.”

She was then “jeered at” to be quiet when trying to initiate a discussion.

“The role of the attorney general is completely unsafe now,” she concluded.

“Poor old Peter Goldsmith. Put into the House of Lords by Blair. Put into government by Blair. He was excluded and then let in if he said the right thing.

“He didn’t tell us the truth. The whole role of the attorney general has proved to be completely unsafe.”

The panel asked Ms Short’s opinion of the argument that going with the Americans helped Britain influence US policy.

“I don’t think we influenced anything,” she replied.

“I think it’s pathetic. I think it humiliates Britain.”

She urged Britain to have an honest debate about what the ‘special relationship’ meant, “whether it’s adoration. or if it’s about bottom lines”.

Ms Short added: “We’ve ended up humiliating ourselves and been less good friends to America.

“When the Americans ask us to do something the prime minister and the chancellor get together and all get terribly excited. We need to rethink that.”

She also lambasted the argument – expounded by Mr Blair when he gave evidence – that no matter how much time they were given the weapons inspectors would not have been successful.

“They were scared of [Dr Hans] Blix being successful. They started to smear him,” she said.

“Disgraceful.”

Ms Short reiterated statements made over the weekend that Gordon Brown was essentially indifferent to the war.

“I had various cups of coffee with Gordon,” she told the inquiry.

“He was very unhappy and marginalised. He would say on Iraq ‘we must uphold the UN’ and then he spoke about other issues that worried him and I rabbited on about Iraq so I’m not sure we were communicating terribly well but we were having coffee.”

Once a deal had been made between Mr Brown and Mr Blair, her relationship with the current prime minister changed, however.

“It was all different,” she said. “[He was] back in with Tony. No more cups of coffee.”

The ex-international development secretary resigned in the wake of the war, but earned scorn from many anti-war activists for failing to take action when it would have had greater political significance.

But Ms Short has attempted to make up for her timing since, by striking a forthright and plain-speaking tone when discussing matters of government.

She made some attempt to clarify her position today.

Explaining her discussions with Mr Blair when Robin Cook resigned, Ms Short said the prime minister told her: “‘Oh well if you care about the [Middle East] road map that might help me with [President George W.] Bush’.

“Then he called me in another day and said Bush was about to announce the road map. I thought if the president of the United States and the prime minister of Britain say that it meant something, rather than just a bit of manipulation,” she added.

“I booked my place to make the resignation statement with the Speaker. I knew we couldn’t stop the war. I thought ‘well, if we get a Palistinian state and a UN lead on reconstruction then I’ll stay for that’ and I got a hell of a lot of criticism for that.”

Later in the testimony she said: “What Tony Blair promised me wasn’t true. He just conned me.”

Ms Short has faced considerable criticism in witnesses’ testimony at the inquiry so far. Former director of communications for the prime minister, Mr Campbell, said she had been barred from key meetings because she could not be trusted.

Former head of the civil service Lord Turnbull later criticised that revelation, calling it “patronising”.

She had been excluded because of her view of the war, rather than for any other reason, he went on to argue.

“Tony Blair wanted things to move quickly,” he said.

“He did not want to spend time on ‘conflict resolution’ between colleagues.”

Ms Short was followed by Hilary Benn, international development secretary between 2003 and 2007.