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We don't need Butler to discredit Blair

By Boris Johnson
(Filed: 15/07/2004)

To his legions of admirers, Lord Butler of Brockwell is known as a man of boundless optimism. If there is a blizzard outside the chalet, Lord Butler's place is on the piste. If there is ice on the swimming pool, the Butler head is the first to broach it, notwithstanding the first-class brain within.

Facing a nation made deeply mistrustful by the relentless no-show of the weapons of mass destruction, Lord Butler could not help himself. Like a man driving a carload of squabbling children to a distant beach, he was determined to look on the bright side.

Look here, he said: how do you know these WMD are not going to turn up? Someone had sent his committee a fascinating picture of an Iraqi fighter plane buried in the sand, apparently in an effort to hide it. Well, said Lord Butler, in a remark that would get him an A in Key Stage 2 geography, "There is a lot of sand in Iraq."

One can imagine the excitement his words will provoke in those of a romantic and enterprising disposition. Even now, epicene undergraduates will be vying for sponsorship for their expeditions of WMD discovery, and who knows what long-lost objects they may turn up in the sands of Mesopotamia.

They may find the plane of Amelia Earhart, or the racehorse Shergar, or perhaps Lord Lucan will spring from the dunes where he has been shacked up with an abominable snow-woman.

But it is frankly hard to believe, more than a year after the end of the war, that they will find a significant quantity of weapons of mass destruction. Not even Blair seems any longer to believe in their existence. He told a Commons committee the other day that he had given up hope of finding the objects that were essential to his casus belli.

And yet this is the Blair who, in September 2002, has "absolutely no doubt that they existed and they were a threat to this country's interests''. As he told the Commons, the threat of Saddam and weapons of mass destruction is not American or British propaganda. "The history and present threat are real."

The question we have all been asking since the end of the war is how he could have got it so stunningly wrong, and how the Government's stated justification for the war against Iraq could turn out to be an illusion. That was what we hoped the great Butler would settle for us.

Did the intelligence seen by Blair justify the evangelical certainty with which he made his case? Did he accurately represent that intelligence to the public? And did the Number 10 machine use any arts to make the threat from Saddam sound more alarming, and the arguments for war therefore more convincing?

To be fair to Lord Butler, he does indeed make some strong criticism of the intelligence services, and of Blair's method of government. Butler comes very close to supporting the construction put on events by Andrew Gilligan and the BBC, in that he points to the tension between the intelligence services and the desires of their political masters.

Fifteen days before Blair's apocalyptic warnings, it now emerges that the Joint Intelligence Committee was telling ministers that the evidence for WMD was patchy and fragmentary. "More weight was placed on the intelligence than it would bear. The consequence was to put the Joint Intelligence Committee and its chairman into an area of public controversy," says Butler, and he is especially scathing about the so-called 45-minute claim, saying that it should never have been in the dossier.

And yet Blair will escape the consequences of the Butler report. Yesterday in the Commons, he and his colleagues were ludicrously claiming utter vindication, and the only reason they could do so was that Butler mysteriously found "no evidence" that the intelligence had been "embellished".

It must be said that he does not appear to have looked very hard for such evidence. He might have interviewed Alastair Campbell, for instance. It was Campbell who intervened so flagrantly, in so many ways, with the text of the dossier.

When Campbell read the draft September dossier, with its already fallacious assertion that "the Iraqi military may be able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so," he decided that this language was not tough enough. He consulted no experts. He just knew that this limp conditional would be off-putting to tabloid headline writers, and so he asked "his mate" John Scarlett to change the mood of the verb to the indicative; and, in spite of the reservations of his own intelligence officers, Scarlett obliged.

If Butler had really been in search of evidence of embellishment, he should have interviewed Campbell about his e-mails to Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief of staff, in which they discussed how they hoped the dossier would be reported. The reality is that Gilligan's original story - that there was intelligence community alarm at the way the Government was "sexing up" the data - has been shown to be right, and, for one reason or another, Lord Butler has pulled the fatal punch.

Yesterday he said that Blair could not possibly have deliberately lied about WMD, since he would have known that he could be caught out by events, and the failure to find them. But that is to misrepresent Blair's crime. He took a risk, as all politicians do. It seemed to him very likely indeed that WMD in fact existed. In order to make the case for war to a sceptical public and Labour Party, however, he had to make the threat sound more vivid than the data strictly allowed.

He was caught out. Lord Butler has let him off, no doubt conceiving that it is not his function to terminate a serving Prime Minister; but the sad truth is that most of us no longer need Lord Butler to discredit Tony Blair.