After much wrangling about what can and cannot be published of the personal correspondence between Tony Blair and George W Bush, I understand the report of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War will at last be released in February 2015.
Around now, the ‘Salmon’ letters [see footnote] should be going out, giving official notice to those who are to be criticised in the Chilcot report.
These are believed to include former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair and his then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, and a number of officials, advisers and commanders.
Though David Cameron voted in Parliament for the 2003 allied invasion of Iraq, it appears the PM believes that the publication of the report so close to the general election in May will do him and his party no real harm – that those who will suffer will be his foes on the Labour benches and in the military establishment.
It had been argued that the publication should be put off until after the May general election, when it could be debated by all sides more fully. In February, public officials, civil servants and the military will be in the six-month period of pre-election ‘purdah’ when, by convention, detailed discussion of such divisive, controversial matters is discouraged.
But this will suit Cameron and the Tory leadership, who simply want the headline points to be disseminated – that Britain, under a Labour government, entered a war without thinking it through and that the culprits were Blair (and his ‘sofa’ style of government) and our military leaders, who should never have agreed to it.
For Cameron, these basically anti-war headlines will provide more than ample support for his current stance on IS and Ukraine – an offer of assistance for the western alliance but without any commitment to real fighting.
For Ed Miliband and his team in the run-up to the election, it will require further effort to distance themselves from Blair – who only today was insisting that he should be listened to when he says that Britain must consider putting boots on the ground to destroy the Islamic State – however successful he may have been in winning three elections.
For the military, it is bound to presage further swingeing cuts in manpower, equipment and budgets.
David Cameron and his government have had a difficult relationship with the military – summed up in his aside after a general had spoken out once too often: “I do the talking, and they do the fighting.”
Less than six months after the current coalition came to power in May 2010, the government introduced a hastily assembled review to cut defence spending by eight per cent over four years. In reality it cut combat effectiveness by nearly 40 per cent over three years.
The plans for two gigantic new aircraft carriers have been chopped and changed three times since 2010. The funding for the advanced American Joint Strike Fighters to go on them is still uncertain.
Plans to cut the regular Army from 102,000 to 82,000, and raise new reserves of 30,000, have not run smoothly. Recruiting has been outsourced to a private company, Capita, and the number of new recruits and reserves is well below what is required.
Though the looming general election may put constraints on making political capital out of the Chilcot report, two books now in the publishers’ catalogues could help Cameron’s cause.
Next month Gen Lord Richards, Chief of the Defence Staff for most of the Cameron years, publishes his memoirs, Taking Command. Although Richards was appointed by Cameron, he became increasingly isolated from him over the Libya campaign of 2011 – in particular Cameron’s insistence on an air campaign without risking British soldiers in ground fighting.
Richards insisted in 2010 that the “main effort” of the UK military must be Afghanistan, where he had served as commander of the international forces, ISAF.
The decisions of British generals and commanders regarding Afghanistan over the years are the subject of a second book, High Command, by another retired general, Christopher Elliott. It is due to come out next January, just a few weeks ahead of Chilcot.
Neither book is likely to thaw the current chill between the service chiefs and the politicians and the civil servants in the MoD and the Treasury. But they will help enhance the charge made by the most important Defence Secretary of the Cameron reign, Philip Hammond, that the service heads need to have “a better sense of how to run a business” – in other words a general questioning of their competence.
Cameron and Hammond, now Foreign Secretary but still the decisive voice in UK defence and strategy, know that the current defence plans and budgets don’t add up. Since a boost in military expenditure is unlikely, given the depth of the national debt, more cuts must come. More cuts mean no serious British intervention in foreign adventures – even if the politicians wanted one.
To bring the Chilcot report into play when it cannot be seriously debated politically just ahead of the general election may be part of a cunning plan to justify Cameron’s increasingly neo-isolationist stance.
But a foreign policy of perpetual fence-sitting wins no friends, and it certainly deters no present or future foe.
Footnote: ‘Salmon’ letters are named after Lord Justice Salmon who proposed the letters of notification after he led an inquiry into a complaint by the late media tycoon and former Labour MP Robert Maxwell, who complained that he was criticised unfairly in a report into his business affairs, and that his inability to reply was an infringement of his human rights. ·