31 July 2004  
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Why is Mr Blair still in Downing Street?
Given what we now know about Iraq, says Malcolm Rifkind, it is intolerable that the PM remains in office while journalists have been forced to resign Tony Blair has done more damage to Britain’s intelligence services than anyone since Kim Philby or Burgess and MacLean. He has done so not by acting in bad faith or lying to Parliament, but through poor judgment, incompetence and arrogant indifference.

‘The North-South divide runs through the middle of our house.’

The first charge against him is that he has politicised MI6 and the other intelligence agencies. Never before has any government, Labour or Conservative, required MI6 and the Joint Intelligence Committee to publish, in their own name, their intelligence assessments. The notorious ‘dodgy dossier’ was demanded by Blair in order to support his case for war in the face of a sceptical Parliament and public.

Tony Blair could have published the same material in his own name but he was astute enough to realise that that would not be as authoritative as the intelligence agencies being required to give their own views directly. In effect they were ordered to give a character reference for the Prime Minister. That was a disgraceful error of judgment, and it would have been equally so even if the intelligence in the dossier had turned out to be accurate and reliable in every respect.

It is not the role of the intelligence agencies nor of the JIC to be a witness or an advocate for government policy. John Scarlett and Sir Richard Dearlove, the then head of MI6, are civil servants. Their task is to advise ministers and provide them with information; it is not to be part of the public debate in Parliament and in the nation.

This is not just an issue of principle. By politicising the intelligence agencies and the JIC, and dragging them into the national debate about the justness of the war, Blair antagonised many individual agents who did not like being used in this way. The consequence has been that the self-discipline of MI6 and the other agencies has been eroded, journalists have been provided with unauthorised information and leaks, and the reputation of the agencies has been compromised.

The Prime Minister should never have been so foolish as to have required such a document. When he did, Mr Scarlett should have responded that the request was improper and that the role of the JIC was to advise and inform ministers and not to be used as a tool of the government in a public debate which divided the nation. If Mr Blair had refused to withdraw his instruction, Mr Scarlett should have offered his resignation. That would have been in the best traditions of the Civil Service.

The second charge against Tony Blair is, of course, that the intelligence assessments were published in the document with the health warnings and caveats removed. The Butler report makes it clear that this happened and that it should not have done.

I received MI6 intelligence assessments almost every day during the five years that I served as foreign secretary and minister of defence. Invariably it was made clear that, with very few exceptions, the agencies could not guarantee the accuracy of the information. Some of it was received from defectors who had their own agenda, some was hearsay, some might have been planted by a foreign government with the deliberate intent of deceiving us. Of course, much of the information did turn out to be accurate, but it was essential that ministers did not take that for granted.

If that was true as regards internal advice, how much more imperative was it that those health warnings should have been included in a document that was being presented to Parliament and the nation to promote the case for going to war against a country that had not attacked us.

They were not included. Mr Scarlett has informed us that he was in control of the contents of the dossier. If he was responsible for their omission, then he should fall on his sword. If it was No. 10, in some form, that influenced their removal then the Prime Minister must take the blame.

Part of the Butler report commented on the intelligence material that turned out to be inaccurate. Mr Blair cannot be blamed for that, though it is extraordinary that when some of this material was found to be unsound this was not drawn, immediately, to the attention of the Prime Minister. That suggests either massive incompetence or that it was assumed that No. 10 would prefer not to know.

The third charge against Blair is the insufferably arrogant and unconstitutional way in which he has responded not only to the shabby defects in the ‘dodgy dossier’, but also to the failure to find any WMD, to the misuse of MI6 and the JIC, and, worst of all, to the revelation that he waged war on a false premise.

He declared that he was accepting ‘full responsibility’ for all that had gone wrong but, in the same breath, declared that the war was justified, his critics misguided, and that Mr Scarlett was to be promoted, not sacked. I am not impressed by such verbal trickery. It is the political style of a charlatan.

At the time of the Falklands, Lord Carrington accepted full responsibility not because of any deception on his part but because he felt that the Foreign Office had failed to protect the national interest. He resigned. The chairman and chief executive of the BBC accepted full responsibility and resigned, not because of their personal misdeeds but because the BBC had broadcast allegations deemed unfounded by Lord Hutton. The editor of the Daily Mirror had to resign, not because he had deliberately published bogus photographs of abuses by British soldiers but because his newspaper had not checked properly that they were genuine.

In this whole sorry mess it is intolerable that the people who reported the Iraq war have had to go, but the Prime Minister who took us into that war through misjudgment and incompetence carries on regardless.

In one sense it does not matter whether the Prime Minister resigns over the failure of his Iraq policy or insists on carrying on. The public has already made up its mind that, on this issue, he is unconvincing, duplicitous and evasive. That judgment will not change.

What is essential, firstly, is an unequivocal assurance from him that never again will he try to politicise MI6 and the JIC. Secondly, he must accept that MI6 should be led by someone unconnected with the recent incompetence. Whatever his undoubted ability, John Scarlett is not that man.

Finally, Mr Blair might acknowledge that true leadership does not consist of declaring that you are right when it is manifestly obvious that you are wrong. Leadership requires honesty and occasional contrition. If you want the people to trust you, you have to trust them.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind is the Conservative PPC for Kensington and Chelsea. He served as Foreign Minister under John Major (1995–97).

© 2004 The Spectator.co.uk