The first was his predecessor, John Major, who had to face a grilling in 1996 as part of the Scott inquiry, which served as the epitaph to 17 years of Conservative party rule by exposing shady dealings at the heart of government.
The link between these two extraordinary public washings of dirty laundry? Saddam Hussein’s weapons.
The present Hutton inquiry into the apparent suicide of weapons expert David Kelly hinges upon whether Blair hyped up the threat of Saddam’s weapons to rush the country to war. Major had to face questions of a different order – whether his ministers had lied to Parliament over secret arms trades with Iraq.
Stealth and force
One government armed Saddam by stealth, another has sought to disarm him by force. And the strictly independent judicial system is the tool employed in both cases to find out whether there was foul play.
Items Britain exported to Iraq between 1980 and 1990:
Major was a peripheral figure in Sir (now Lord) Richard Scott’s “arms to Iraq” inquiry, which dealt with the shenanigans of Margaret Thatcher’s aggressively trade-first premiership.
Trumpeted as a showcase of Major’s push for open government and accountability, the findings of the inquiry – that the government tacitly approved the supply by a British company, Matrix Churchill, of machinery for use in Saddam’s aborted “supergun” project as well as shell casings for conventional and chemical weapons – did not lead to any high profile resignations.
The former Iron Lady of British politics was also required to testify. It was not her first experience of official inquiries.
In 1982, Thatcher was compelled to give evidence to the Franks inquiry into her government’s conduct of events in the run-up to the Falklands War. The difference was that those hearings took place behind closed doors.
When he published his 1996 report, Scott commented that he hoped it would “assist a movement towards more openness in government and the reduction of … the culture of secrecy”.
During Baghdad’s prolonged and bloody invasion of Iran in the 1980s, the inquiry discovered officials shredded documents after deliberately smuggling Chieftain tank hulls made by the then royal ordnance factories to Iraq via Jordan.
Ministers secretly “relaxed” official guidelines to help private companies sell machine tools to build munitions factories. The judge discovered they had also abused lines of credit meant for civil development trade deals in Iraq, to include military sales.
Thatcher’s response was simply to refute Scott’s claim that her government had surreptitiously changed the guidelines to allow the sale of potentially dangerous equipment to Iraq.
Major’s government was swept from office in Tony Blair’s Labour 1997 landslide, due in large part to public distrust of ministers who were seen to have gone unpunished for blatant abuses of power.
The sheer volume of Scott’s report at 2000 pages, the three years it took to compile, and his unwillingness to publish a digestible summary, allowed all parties to read into its Byzantine depths the conclusions they wished.
By contrast, the speed and blanket media coverage of Hutton’s dissection of Blair, his advisers and ministers may result in the most withering judicial censure of a serving government ever seen in British politics. With the Iraq war fresh in the electorate’s mind, and its stated aims manifestly not met, Blair is on the ropes, and his performance before the Hutton inquiry is a crucial test of his personal credibility.
David Kelly, a government scientist, was found with his wrist slashed on 18 July, a week after the Ministry of Defence identified him as the source of a BBC report that claimed the government had exaggerated the threat of Saddam’s weapons.
If Blair can deflect blame for the outing of Kelly onto others, the most likely culprit being his defence secretary Geoff Hoon, his political capital may emerge reduced but not spent, but with his popularity at an all-time low, his position has never been so vulnerable.