After Hutton, problems persist
Blair just can’t shake off the implications of his 45-minute claim
“And the document discloses that [Iraq’s] military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them.”
Those were Tony Blair’s words in the dossier on Iraq’s weapons. Now, 18 months on, he must regret their inclusion. The infamous claim that Saddam could launch weapons of mass destruction (WMD) within 45 minutes has been a constant problem for him over the past few troubled months .
Now the Prime Minister has launched an inquiry to investigate intelligence provided by MI6 in the run-up to war which led to the 45 minute claim. This inquiry, headed by Lord Butler, will investigate the accuracy of material, through examining methods used by the intelligence services, and the way in which intelligence was handled by the government. However, it may not be able to salvage trust in Tony Blair; a poll for the Independent suggested that 68% of the public believe that the Butler Inquiry will be another whitewash. Evidently, the charges that the Prime Minister lied over Iraqi weapons will not go away: 54% of voters said in the same poll that Blair lied on the issue of WMD.
After the new inquiry was launched, Blair faced the allegations of deceiving the public with a radical new tactic. The Prime Minister claimed that he just did not know that the weapons that could be launched in 45 minutes were, in fact, battlefield weapons rather than WMD. Mr Blair insisted in the Commons that the ignorance over WMD was not down to any political desire to strengthen the case for war, merely patchy intelligence which would be dealt with by Lord Butler.
Unfortunately for Mr Blair, evidence given to Lord Hutton suggests that faulty intelligence was not to blame. The head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, John Scarlett, told the Hutton Inquiry that he knew that the 45 minute claim only referred to battlefield weapons. The Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, has revealed that he also knew that the 45 minute claim referred only to battlefield weapons.
The situation worsened when Robin Cook spoke after Blair in the Commons. Mr Cook revealed that even he, in his lowly position as Leader of the House, “…knew Iraq only had battlefield weapons, because I asked the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.” He then asked, “is it not hard to credit, that at no point between the September dossier and the March debate, he did not explain to the Prime Minister the crucial distinction between battlefield weapons and medium range weapons?”
Ignorance also proved a poor defence against the opposition. Tory leader Michael Howard called on the Prime Minister to resign. He said on the BBC Radio 4’s ‘World at One’ “Not to have asked that question before sending our troops into battle seems to me to be the most grave dereliction of duty.” The Independent’s poll showed that 51% of the electorate agree.
The Liberal Democrats also added to the Prime Minister’s woes by boycotting the Butler Inquiry. Charles Kennedy accused it of not answering “the fundamental question,” the reasoning behind the political judgement to go to war.
Both opposition parties have gains to make from the government’s weakened position. There are big elections in June for them to gain from disaffection with the government. But both parties are already looking to an upcoming general election.
Despite Tony Blair’s defence that he is not a liar but is merely incompetent, it seems that the 45 minute claim will just not go away.