CHILCOT INQUIRY AND PARLIAMENTARY ACCOUNTABILITY – 30 November 2016

Dr Julian Lewis: It is a pleasure to begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) on an outstanding maiden speech. I have a history of sometimes disagreeing with hon. Members from Witney, but on this occasion it was fantastic to be able to nod in agreement and pleasure at every remark he made. He has got off to a tremendous start in this House, and I am sure he can tell from the reactions of Members on both sides of the House the good wishes that flow to him today. Make the most of it!

I welcome the fact that Scottish National Party Members and other parties’ Members have chosen to bring forward this subject for debate today. I speak as somebody who voted and spoke in favour of toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003 and who has come to believe that that was entirely the wrong decision to take. It is therefore with a degree of humility that I address the two reasons that I voted and spoke in the way I did: first, because I believed what I was told about weapons of mass destruction; and, secondly, because I had a naive view that if Saddam Hussein were removed we might see something like the emergence of democracy in Iraq – and of course we saw nothing of the kind.

Mike Gapes: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr Lewis: I will, but I am conscious of the informal time limit we have been given.

Mike Gapes: I am extremely grateful. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that if Saddam Hussein had not been removed, it is very likely that his son Uday, or someone else of a similar nature, would have inherited, and that the problems we have seen writ large in Syria since 2011 would have been even worse in Iraq?

Dr Lewis: I accept the first part of what the hon. Gentleman says. It is highly probable that if Saddam Hussein had not been removed, things would have gone on in Iraq in the brutal, dictatorial way in which they had gone on previously. The problem is, as we have learned from what happened in Iraq and in Libya, that one can remove these brutal dictators, but instead of seeing democracy emerge one sees re-emerging a deadly conflict, going back more than 1,000 years, between different branches of the Islamic faith. The hon. Gentleman knows my view on this because, as I hope he remembers, in the arguments we had when the same proposition was put forward to deal with President Assad as we had dealt with Saddam Hussein, I made the same argument then as I make now – that in a choice between a brutal, repressive dictator and the alternative of a totalitarian Islamist state, I am afraid that the brutal dictator is the lesser of two evils. If we have not learned that from what happened in Iraq, then we truly have not learned any lessons from Iraq at all.

At the Liaison Committee meeting on 2 November, we had the opportunity to speak to Sir John Chilcot in person and to ask him directly to interpret the results of his own inquiries. I was particularly struck by the fact that of the two arguments I mentioned earlier – the one about the weapons of mass destruction and the one about the naive belief that democracy would emerge if we got rid of the brutal dictator – he was more censorious on the latter than on the former. He said that if the Prime Minister of the day had not exaggerated the certainty of his claims about weapons of mass destruction it would have been completely clear that he had not misled the House in any way. Sir John said:

“Exaggeration – placing more weight on the intelligence than it could possibly bear – is a conclusion that we reached on the Butler Committee and reached again with even more evidence in the Iraq Inquiry.”

He went on to say something rather curious. I put it to him that one argument that I had found convincing was when Mr Blair had said that there was a real danger of the weapons of mass destruction that were believed to exist in the hands of dictators getting into the hands of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. Sir John went on to say:

“On the other hand, I do not know that, in putting forward the fusion argument, Mr Blair related it very directly and specifically to Saddam passing weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups.”

I was surprised that Sir John made that statement. In the debate in March 2003, Tony Blair had said that

“there are two begetters of chaos: tyrannical regimes with weapons of mass destruction and extreme terrorist groups who profess a perverted and false view of Islam … Those two threats have, of course, different motives and different origins, but they share one basic common view: they detest the freedom, democracy and tolerance that are the hallmarks of our way of life. At the moment, I accept fully that the association between the two is loose – but it is hardening. The possibility of the two coming together” –

that, I think, is what Sir John meant by fusion –

“of terrorist groups in possession of weapons of mass destruction or even of a so-called dirty radiological bomb – is now, in my judgment, a real and present danger”. – [Official Report, 18 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 768.]

We discussed in the debate on the Chilcot Report the fact that there were plenty of references in the documents of the Joint Intelligence Committee and other intelligence organisations to the intelligence services’ real belief that Saddam still retained some weapons of mass destruction. I share Sir John’s conclusion that Tony Blair was guilty of exaggeration of the certainty with which knowledge was held about Saddam’s supposed possession of WMD, but that he was not guilty of lying to the House about that belief.

I have real concern with regard to the second argument, and it is on that argument that I believe the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, will be held to have rather seriously misled the House. I revert to my exchange with Sir John Chilcot on 2 November, in which I said to him:

“I would like you to tell us to what extent Mr Blair was warned of the danger that, far from democracy emerging, Sunni–Shi’a religious strife would follow the removal of the secular dictator, who gave these warnings, and how and why they were ignored. In particular, I would just quote back to you a briefing note from your report which Mr Blair himself sent in January 2003 to President Bush.”

I ask the House to pay particular attention to this note, which Mr Blair sent to President Bush before the war began. The quote is as follows:

“The biggest risk we face is internecine fighting between all the rival groups, religions, tribes, etc. in Iraq when the military strike destabilises the regime. They are perfectly capable, on previous form, of killing each other in large numbers.”

I put this to Sir John:

“Mr Blair knew that and he said it to President Bush, so why did he ignore that terrible possibility that he himself apparently recognised?”

This is Sir John’s reply:

“I cannot give you the answer as to why. You would have to ask him. But what is clear from all the evidence we have collected is that this risk and other associated risks of instability and collapse were clearly identified and available to Ministers and to Mr Blair before the invasion. I can cite all sorts of points, but you will not want me to go into that detail now. It is in the report.

There were other signals, too, from other quarters. Our ambassador in Cairo, for example, was able to report that the Egyptian President had said that Iraq was at risk – it was populated by people who were extremely fond of killing each other, and destabilisation would bring that about.”

Mr Kenneth Clarke: Was my right hon. Friend present when I intervened on the then Prime Minister in a debate on Iraq and asked him what he thought about the risk of causing great instability across the Middle East by invading Iraq? My recollection is that he laughed at me from the Front Bench and asked me what sort of stability I thought Saddam Hussein represented.

Dr Lewis: I believe that that is the most serious charge against Tony Blair. It was not that he did not believe that there were weapons of mass destruction, but that he knew – better than did those of us who did not have the advice of experts to give us a wiser steer – that if we removed the dictator the result would be internecine, deadly, lethal chaos, exactly as we saw it. I am not reassured when I hear from Members on the Front Bench that the National Security Council will prevent the same thing from happening again. When the same prospect came up over Libya, and when the Chief of the Defence Staff put it to Prime Minister Cameron that there would be the same consequences in Libya as there had been in Iraq, he was brushed aside. Until the Chiefs of Staff are properly integrated into the National Security Council, we can have no assurance that those deadly errors will not be replicated.