Saturday, July 17, 2004

Bye By Election - Blair Blitzed, Beaten But not in Brum or by Butler - quite

Yet another crisis week for the government has gone by without apparently doing any damage. The Butler report punched in but again failed to either nail down the prime minister or to convincingly clear him. Where Lord Hutton's report denied that anything was wrong, Butler's made it abundantly clear that plenty was wrong, but crucially avoided assigning blame to any individual or indeed organisation. The government was left to moan that there have now been four inquiries "producing over a million words" of examination. Can't we please move on? It ought to be superfluous to point out the flaws in all four inquiries - the Foreign Affairs Committee's Labour majority and lack of access to papers, the Intelligence and Security Committee's position as the creature of the prime minister, Lord Hutton's restricted remit and Butler's specific instruction to comment on "processes and systems" as opposed, presumably, to individuals. After all, to misquote Mark Twain, you can't hang a clue for murder. The same, I suppose, goes for a system.

It is worth recapping a little. The huge release of papers to Hutton made various things clear. We now know that the dossier was repeatedly re-drafted and that in this redrafting process the language was altered and various qualifiers were removed. We also know that members of the prime minister's political staff commented on the drafts to the intelligence officials, most famously in No. 10 chief of staff Jonathan Powell's email to JIC Chairman John Scarlett asking for more compelling intelligence. Even Lord Hutton was willing to concede that efforts to produce the most persuasive paper possible might have "subconsciously influenced" the drafters. Now, Butler has produced the drafts themselves. It is clear that somebody was trying to boost - to sex up - the dossier, and Butler as good as says so. Lest we forget, yer man Godric Smith told the Hutton inquiry that "on the presentational side" Alastair Campbell did indeed take part in producing the dossier. It's a slow burn, but as far as I can see the infamous Gilligan story is being corroborated.

Which means no-one should be surprised to see a swing against Labour of 26%+ when it turns up. Despite frenzied and extremely bad-tempered campaigning, Labour saw a rock solid seat like Leicester South evaporate and effectively relied on a small split vote to the Galloway fan club in Birmingham. Everyone politically is now saying - well, it's a byelection, the Lib Dems can't repeat at the general election.

No-one has yet to say why.

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