LONDON — Tony Blair’s evidence to the Iraq war inquiry, notable for a lack of any apology, sets up an awkward appearance within weeks for Prime Minister Gordon Brown, ahead of a likely May election.
Blair’s unrepentant testimony sparked fury among military families and criticism from the press, reviving memories of what many commentators see as the ruling Labour party’s biggest blunder since taking power in 1997.
The former premier told the Chilcot inquiry that he accepted “responsibility but not regret for removing Saddam” — prompting shouts of “liar” and “you’re a murderer” from the public gallery.
Brown has talked little about his role in Blair’s decision to take Britain to war in 2003 alongside the United States and he oversaw the end of the country’s military mission in Iraq last year.
Former minister Clare Short, who quit after the invasion in protest, told the BBC Sunday that Brown “didn’t oppose the war, but he didn’t support it” before coming round in favour just before the invasion.
However, Blair’s ex communications chief Alastair Campbell told the inquiry this month that Brown — finance minister for a decade before taking over from Blair in 2007 — was one of the “key ministers” his boss consulted at the time.
This could raise tricky questions about Brown’s judgement and whether he tried to talk Blair out of launching into a war in which 179 British soldiers died, shortly before an election which opinion polls predict he will lose.
“It would have taken resignation by just a handful of ministers and officials to prevent this war,” Polly Toynbee, a leading commentator on Labour, wrote in the Guardian newspaper Saturday.
“Whatever Chilcot opines, long after the election is over, this extraordinary public inquisition of the recent prime minister (Blair) has been a raw reminder of the defining error of Labour’s foreign policy.”
Brown is likely to be questioned by the inquiry in late February or early March.
At least two government ministers have hinted the election could be held on May 6 and although informal campaigning is already well under way, the formal race would probably start in early April.
Although the election seems likely to be dominated by the economy, Iraq could still play a role for some voters, according to experts.
“It’s not going to be a decisive issue but there’s no doubt at all that it’s now a background hum in the build-up to the election and will reinforce certain impressions,” political commentator Steve Richards told BBC television Friday.
“If people think this government is full of liars, that will be reinforced.”
Some key members of Blair’s administration at the time of the invasion remain in power. As well as Brown, there is Jack Straw, foreign secretary in 2003 and now justice secretary.
In addition, some media reports suggest Blair could return to help Labour’s general election campaign, a move likely to prove highly controversial, not least with many military families.
Whether or not Brown is beaten by David Cameron and the main opposition Conservatives in the general election, Blair’s evidence may have implications for Britain way beyond the poll.
Despite his warning that the West must be prepared to take a “very hard, tough line” with Iran over its disputed nuclear programme, it could now be much harder for Britain to commit its troops to foreign deployments.
“If Tony Blair is right and Iran does kick off and there’s some kind of international force to be sent there, David Cameron as prime minister is really going to have to think hard… given what happened in Iraq,” Fraser Nelson, editor of current affairs magazine the Spectator, told the BBC Friday.
“I think this will tie the hands of prime ministers for years to come.”