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Original Essays

An Unusual Gamble

by Peter Stothard
  1. Thirty Days: Tony Blair and the Test of History
    $1.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "[A] terrific book." Thomas Friedman, The New York Times
Tony Blair is not having as tough a time as Gray Davis. There is no recall vote to remove the British Prime Minister. Only one political movie star has said that Blair should quit. And Glenda Jackson, who won her Oscar for A Touch of Class thirty years ago when Arnold Schwarznegger was still a bodybuilder, is not looking to get into Downing Street herself.

But the man whose daily life I described in my book, Thirty Days, is still in trouble. The man with whom I spent so long while the Iraq war was planned and fought is not enjoying his Summer and has a harsh Fall ahead.

Tony Blair was certain that war was right. That was one of the reasons that he took the unprecedented risk of allowing an independent writer to be with him in March and April this year. Never before had a British Prime Minister (or any other world leader that I am aware of) permitted a journalist to be in and out of his office at such a time, whether he was with the US President at Camp David or on the telephone to Yasser Arafat, planning press conferences with his staff or listening to the alarms of foreign ambassadors.

But the British people never shared this certainty. Because of that, and in a strange and very British way, the men and women of Downing Street are now enduring another unprecedented kind of scrutiny. Their filing cabinets and hard-drives are being turned over by a judge in a court of law.

When Thirty Days was first published some thought that Tony Blair had revealed the inner manoeuvrings of his office in a way which seriously damaged him. Others said that he had shown himself to be a man of moral principle, even if his reasons for backing the war were not the ones he had shared with the voters. Some complained that my daily diaries of life in Number Ten contained too much domestic detail and not enough proof of deception. Everyone agreed that in allowing me to write an immediate, unvetted description of everything I had heard and seen, he had taken an unusual gamble.

For a few weeks after I left the Prime Minister's office, life seemed to return to normal. Saddam had been ousted. The war had officially ended. Tony Blair went to Washington to give a speech and get seventeen standing ovations from the US Congress. Then suddenly, within hours of that triumph, a British expert on Weapons of Mass Destruction was found dead in the woods of Oxfordshire. Blair's success on Capitol Hill hardly merited a mention in the British media. The only question was 'Who killed David Kelly?' and, when it seemed clear that he had killed himself, 'Why had David Kelly killed himself?'

A judge was given the job of finding out. The Downing Street team with whom I had spent my thirty days quickly moved out of the shadows and into the limelight. Their e-mails about the dead scientist, their fears about his links with BBC journalists and the Iraqi military, their worries about how to investigate his leaks of unauthorised information were on TV screens every night. The inquiry wanted all the evidence — from that of junior officials in the Press Office to the explanations of the Prime Minister himself.

Glenda Jackson, now retired from movies, a Member of Parliament and a leading member of the Labour left in London, was one of those who thought that Tony Blair's time was already up. The more cautious waited to hear what the judge's verdict would be. Recall rules in Britain can be no less swift and ruthless than those of California if the conditions are right.

Had Tony Blair exaggerated the extent that Iraq was an immediate threat? Did Kelly represent a group of experts within government who knew the case for war was weaker than Blair was claiming? Did the Downing Street team, whose intense loyalty to Blair I had observed so closely and for so long, 'sex up' the dossiers of evidence given to press and Parliament?

Readers began to look with renewed interest at Thirty Days. Anyone who wanted to know whether Blair's chief aide, Alastair Campbell, had a pathological hostility to the BBC could find plenty of evidence — from morbid jokes to moral outrage — within the pages of my book. Did the intelligence chiefs control the spin-doctors or was it the other way round? Did the Blair team really believe that Iraq had illegal and dangerous WMD? It seemed to me that the most senior advisers certainly did. But I too have been rereading my own account, looking for signs that I might have missed.

And how much did WMD matter? As the New York Times columnist, Tom Friedman, wrote after reading Thirty Days, Tony Blair may have been more honest about his motives for war when alone with only me and a filing cabinet than at any other time of which we know. Blair believed that Saddam was an evil that should be removed. He knew that Bush was going to war against Iraq. He feared for the consequences if the US went to war alone. He saw an opportunity to do good as he saw it. And he took it.

On Thursday March 13, as I watched Tony Blair seek an aide in an empty office and find only a filing cabinet, I heard him shout impatiently against those who were 'happy' for Saddam to stay in power. It was not always possible to do the right thing, he said. If he could get rid of the Burmese junta too, and remove Robert Mugabe, the worst tyrant today in Africa, he would. But he could not. So he did not. 'But, when you can you should'. That moral motivation was also part of the message which he later gave to Congress and which won him such applause. Then came the death of David Kelly. spacer

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