While the Iraq War Inquiry failed to hold the former prime minister's feet to the fire—and with the war remaining a hot issue in 2010 election—the British public will not let him off as easy, making Blair a stranger in his own land, perhaps for the rest of his life.
Tony Blair's hands were shaking when he opened a bottle of water at the start of his daylong appearance before Britain's Iraq War Inquiry on Friday. But such is the depth of the disrespect, even disgust, with which the former prime minister is now held in most parts of the media, on the left and right, that it was widely dismissed as just part of his performance—the most consummate actor-manager in modern British politics up to his old tricks again.
Even his many critics concede that Mr. Blair turned in a polished, assured performance, after his shaky (contrived or not) start. The collection of Establishment worthies that make up the Iraq inquiry barely laid a glove on him. But he changed few minds or made any new friends—and it wasn't just his media critics he failed to convince: Post-performance polls show that the British public was not convinced either.
At the inquiry, it became clear that Mr. Blair had not really understood the difference between tactical and strategic WMD capability. But his feet were not held to the fire.
One poll published Sunday shows that eight of 10 still think he has lied about Iraq, seven of 10 think the war was illegal, and six of 10 think it has increased the terrorist threat Britain faces. These are damning judgments, and not just because they show that Iraq remains the biggest blight on Mr. Blair's premiership. They are bad news for his ruling Labor Party, too, because, unlike America, where attention is now more focused on Afghanistan, Iraq remains a huge issue of controversy and concern in British politics.
Britain is in Afghanistan, too, and there is declining support for its commitment there. But it is Iraq that still gets the juices of the British body politic going to a degree it doesn't in America anymore. The media is still full of it, and it still generates the most heated of discussions on the talk shows. True, it is a particular obsession of the politico-media chattering classes of Westminster, but there is no question the issue still resonates deep across the country.
Even many who supported the war at the time of the invasion now feel Britain went into Iraq on a false prospectus, that the public was never told the truth by Mr. Blair, and that he allowed the country to be dragged along by an unpopular president, as the junior partner into an unnecessary war. British hatred—not too strong a word—for President Bush has fueled British hatred for Mr. Blair's role in the Iraq war. His appearance before the inquiry has changed none of that.
• Alex Massie: Blair’s Gutsy StandMr. Blair told the inquiry that 9/11 had changed everything and that he saw it as an attack not just on America but on Britain, too. Threats that Britain and America had previously been prepared to live with uneasily, such as Saddam Hussein, now had to be confronted. He insisted that far from being America's poodle on this, he was an enthusiastic collaborator with Mr. Bush.
But he had to concede that the threat from Saddam did not increase after 9/11—just his perception of it. Unlike some in the Bush administration, Mr. Blair never thought or claimed that Saddam was linked to al Qaeda. He simply thought that Britain and America could not risk a rogue state like Iraq, which supposedly had weapons of mass destruction, ever getting into cahoots with al Qaeda.
Mr. Blair always gave Saddam's WMD as the fundamental reason for war. But many have long suspected he was just as enthusiastic as Mr. Bush for regime change—and that he effectively signed up to that with the president at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002, long before the U.N. process to deal with Saddam had been exhausted. Interestingly, Mr. Blair did not quite deny this, though he did not confirm that he had then signed a pact with Mr. Bush "in blood," as the then British ambassador to Washington has testified to the inquiry.
This is important not just because it is the basis of the accusation that Mr. Blair misled the British people, emphasizing WMD when he really backed regime change: It goes straight to the heart of the legal basis—or lack of one—for war. At a pinch, invading because of WMD might have been legal, though the British Foreign Office warned he need a new, explicit U.N. resolution for it to be so; but there was a unanimous view in London that invading to change the regime was illegal.
Hence Mr. Blair's emphasis on WMD. In the run-up to war he even told Parliament that Saddam could stay in power if he destroyed his WMD. Yet he recently told a TV interviewer that it would have been right to get rid of Saddam even if he didn't have any WMD—which, as it transpired, he didn't. He had some difficulty explaining that away to the inquiry, but, as in so many areas, it didn't push him.
Watching the inquiry go about its work has been frustrating. Conducted in posh tones and with the exaggerated politeness the British establishment deploys when it is investigating itself, it cannot be said to inquisitorial. The Observer described it as having less "cutting edge than a month-old lettuce…[it] stumbled around like people in the dark trying to find the light switch and then abandoned the quest without leaving themselves or anybody else much the wiser…"
That was apparent when it came to WMD. Mr. Blair had assured Parliament in the run-up to war that it was "beyond doubt" that Saddam had WMD. We know British intelligence at the time on WMD was "patchy and sporadic." Mr. Blair had insisted that the WMD threat was "growing"; hence the need to invade. In fact, the most intelligence reports said was that it was "continuing," and even that was wrong. Yet the inquiry failed to nail him on these contradictions.
Nor did it do any better when it came to Mr. Blair's dodgy dossier detailing Saddam's supposed WMD arsenal. This had claimed that British interests—such as its military base in Cyprus—were only 45 minutes away from a WMD attack by Saddam. In fact, there was nothing in the intelligence to suggest he had the missile capability or the WMD to hit Cyprus. The most the intelligence claimed was that Saddam might have battlefield WMD. At the inquiry, it became clear that Mr. Blair had not really understood the difference between tactical and strategic WMD capability. "I didn't focus on it [the intelligence] a great deal," he said. Yet the intelligence was supposedly his basis for going to war. The 45-minute claim is now seen as ludicrous. But Mr. Blair's feet were not held to the fire.
At the end of the questions, the inquiry chairman asked if he had regrets. "Responsibility but not regret," replied Mr. Blair. He did not even express regret for the loss of British lives, even though there were many bereaved parents of British soldiers killed in Iraq in the audience, a curious omission from the old spinmeister.
Mr. Blair will not say sorry and the British public will not forgive him. As a result, he is a stranger in his own land, and such is the dark Iraqi cloud that still hangs over British politics, he could remain a stranger for the foreseeable future, perhaps for the rest of his life. It would certainly seem to rule him out playing any role in the upcoming spring general election campaign, and the bellicose line he trotted out against Iran at the inquiry will surely inhibit his effectiveness as Middle East peace envoy.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who is no fan of Mr. Blair anyway, will be happy for his predecessor to remain invisible during the campaign. He has his own Iraq problems: He has to appear before the inquiry before polling day. As the most important man in the Labor government after Mr. Blair during the Iraq war, he is in a tricky place. Either he supported the invasion, in which case he will be seen as complicit with Mr. Blair, or he will distance himself from the venture, in which case people will want to know why he didn't speak out or resign.
Who would have thought, seven years after British troops and armor roared into Basra, that Iraq war would remain one of the most toxic issues in British politics and still be a live issue in the 2010 election?
Andrew Neil is a publisher and broadcaster working out of London, New York, Dubai, and the south of France. He is chairman and editor in chief of Press Holdings Media Group, publishers of The Spectator, Spectator Business, and Apollo.