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Four inquiries and four fudges

Iain Macwhirter looks past the spin and asks why four high-profile public inquiries over the past 12 months have failed to come to satisfying – or even credible – conclusions

THIS was the year of the official inquiry – Fraser, Hutton, Butler, Budd. It’s been a growth industry for the great and the good – and the not so good. For at the end of this epic year in politics, the gold standard of the official inquiry has been devalued.

How naive we all were 12 months ago, before Lord Hutton’s report into the death of the former weapons inspector Dr David Kelly. Hutton was a popular hero for most of his inquiry – a fearless seeker of the truth who had prised the lid off Whitehall and forced into the public domain all those hot-headed pre-war e-mails that had been circulating around Number 10. Documents normally kept secret for 30 years were suddenly out there: Jonathan Powell’s questioning the reliability of WMD intelligence; Alastair Campbell’s own private diaries talking of “this massive issue of trust”.

Most people in the Westminster village expected Hutton to be critical of the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan, but we expected he would at least be equally critical of Number 10. Gilligan had made mistakes, that was clear, but they weren’t quite on the same scale as taking the country to war on a false pretext.

But no. Lord Hutton took aim, fired and shot the messengers. The BBC’s director general, Greg Dyke, and the chairman of the board of governors, Gavyn Davies, (both New Labour men) resigned after Hutton condemned the infamous Today broadcast which had suggested that the government “probably” knew that the 45 minute claim was wrong.

Andrew Gilligan left a little later – only to walk into the arms of the right-wing Spectator magazine, rather confounding the claim that the BBC is a hotbed of lefties.

The BBC was shaken to its core and some people even forecast its demise. But the corporation recovered its composure fast – mainly because of the selflessness of Dyke and Davies, who put the interests of the BBC above their own careers and resigned promptly .

The BBC moved on. But that extraordinary verdict in January 2004 is seared into the memory of everyone in political journalism: the way Hutton talked of “weapons of maars destruction” as if he were talking of War Of The Worlds; those fustian half-moon glasses; the casual, almost flippant, way he dismissed the journalism and gave the benefit of the doubt to the politicians.

Of course, people said afterwards that, as a judge who had served most of his time in Northern Ireland working hand in hand with the intelligence services, Hutton was hardly going to come down against John Scarlett, the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Hindsight is a marvellous thing.

But Hutton turned out to be a whitewash too far. If Alastair Campbell had really had a hand in it, he would surely have added some passages critical of the government, if only to ensure that the report didn’t look too one-sided. The public didn’t have confidence in the Hutton Report, and after some ill-judged gloating from Campbell, the government quietly shelved it.

The Butler Report in July was more critical of the way the intelligence had been handled in the run-up to war, although it didn’t seem so at the time. Behind the mandarin language, the former Cabinet secretary was pretty damning about the informal style of government under Tony Blair and of the way that important reservations and qualifications had been removed from intelligence dossiers in case they weakened the case for war. But the press and public had had enough of Iraq reports, and the report disappeared into the silly season only to resurface a fortnight ago when Lord Butler repeated his criticisms.

In the meantime, we had the Fraser Inquiry into the Holyrood buildings scandal. This report exonerated the late Donald Dewar of any blame, even though the former Scottish Secretary made most of the key decisions about the architect, contract and location of the building. Fraser’s open verdict allowed everyone to draw a line under the sorry “follyrood” saga – until last week, when the lawyers started to draw entirely new battle lines in the Court of Session as the great litigation begins.

Fraser, Hutton and Butler have undermined the authority of official reports. But perhaps people expected too much of these inquiries. There is something slightly infantile about seeking “closure” on complex political issues by calling in an impartial father figure to adjudicate. That kind of resolution is strictly Hollywood.

In the real world, it is up to the legislature – the elected representatives – to hold government to account. If Tony Blair got above himself and started to behave like an absolutist monarch, then it is up to parliament, not wise men to bring him back to earth.

The final inquiry of the year, the Budd report into the fast-tracking of David Blunkett’s lover’s nanny’s visa, was dismissed as a whitewash almost before it was published. Sir Alan strained credulity to the edge of reason in his efforts not to draw the obvious conclusions from the sequence of events. Yes, Blunkett showed the letter to his civil servants; yes, they sent the letter on; yes, the visa emerged 120 days earlier; yes, the officials at the immigration department sent a note back saying: “Sorted – no favours but a little quicker.” But no, there was no evidence that Blunkett had actually intervened. Well, fact is stranger than fiction.

It is always difficult to prove absolutes – especially in politics. There is always an element of doubt about individual intention. We will never know for certain what was in the mind of David Blunkett when he alerted his officials to the visa difficulties of Leoncia Casalme. Perhaps he only intended to cite her case as an example of bureaucratic inefficiency. Seems pretty incredible, but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

You see, all public inquiries are underwritten by an assumption that people in public life generally act in good faith. This is why MPs are always referred to as “honourable members” in the Commons. Whether it is sexing up intelligence dossiers or fast- tracking visas, there is always an assumption that those who have called the inquiry are, almost by definition, above reproach. The only exceptions are the very cases where people in public life are demonstrated to be liars – such as Jonathan Aitken and his bill from the Paris Ritz.

This is explanation for the most extraordinary conundrum of 2004 – the fact that while people such as David Blunkett have resigned over relatively trivial misdemeanours, the Prime Minister remains in office despite having taken the country to war in pursuit of WMDs which turned out to be pure fantasy. Many have died. The Middle East has been plunged into turmoil. Even the CIA concedes that international terrorism has got worse as a result of the invasion.

But Tony Blair remains in office, apparently stronger than ever. Indeed, commentators are forecasting another landslide election victory. The Prime Minister is a Right Honourable Member, a Privy Counsellor. He exercises the residual powers of monarchy, the Royal Prerogative. He always acts in good faith and consequently cannot be brought to book unless his Cabinet and back-benches rebel against him.

Or until his conscience demands his self-sacrifice. Neither of these have taken place. Which is why the war goes on in Iraq, and Tony Blair remains in office and in power. The story of the year is not Tony Blair’s refusal to resign, but his party’s reluctance to hold him to account.

26 December 2004