Brown's five Iraq inquiry U-turns explained

by Stephen Tall on June 25, 2009

The Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow has been a busy boy – he’s been trying to keep pace with the Government’s U-turns since Gordon Brown made his statement announcing the Iraq inquiry last week. He reckons there have been a possible nine, and a definite five:

  • Holding the inquiry in public
  • Allowing the inquiry to attribute blame
  • Forcing witnesses to give evidence on oath
  • Publishing an interim report
  • Membership of the inquiry committee
  • Indeed, it’s interesting to compare this list with Nick Clegg’s consistent pressure on the Government over the past few days, and the clarification he’s sought from inquiry chair Sir John Chilcot.

    Economist columnist-blogger Bagehot has today analysed this litany of reverses in an attempt to explain Mr Brown’s reverse Midas touch:

    I prefer to see the whole, shambolic episode as a parable of the dialectical weakness that has undone Mr Brown’s premiership.

    The prime minister made his announcement without proper consultation, either of other political leaders or other interested parties, such as current and former generals. His proposal came in for criticisms—on the openness question, the composition of the panel, the time-frame and so on—that ought to have been glaringly predictable, and would certainly have been made plain by any meaningful canvassing of views. As a result, an initiative that was doubtless expected to be a vote-winner threatened to become a political disaster. The government has responded with an ongoing frenzy of back-tracking and buck-passing, leaving it to Sir John to resolve many of the controversial issues himself. (There is a useful catalogue of the various U-turns here.) What ought to have been a cross-party endeavour instead became, in the votes in the Commons yesterday evening, a futile test of the government’s strength.

    There you have it: an encapsulation of the whole Brown tragicomedy. The motive may (or may not) have been noble. But the execution was a catalogue of shoddy judgments and mistakes, combining lack of consultation with a political tin ear, failings that perfectly illustrate why Mr Brown’s overall position is so vulnerable. That vulnerability in turn explains why he was obliged so swiftly to climb down. He is in large measure the author of his own predicament; and the predicament is in turn emasculating him.

    And Labour’s U-turns aren’t restricted solely to Iraq. Just today, Harriet Harman scrapped the Government’s plans to limit the scope of the committee set up to oversee the reform of Parliament. Ministers had been planning to prevent the Wright Committee from examining any Government business. However, Ms Harman today contacted Lib Dem shadow Leader of the House, David Heath, to inform him that she would be accepting his amendment allowing the committee to look at Government business.

    David Heath commented:

    I am delighted that the Leader of the House is prepared to talk to other parties about the Wright Committee. It is a shame that time after time the Government has to be dragged kicking and screaming to the brink before it is prepared to consult on these matters.

    “The Government always seems to want to decide first and consult later. It makes a nonsense of everything the Prime Minister says about a new approach to Parliament. Perhaps after three [sic – Ed.] U-turns in a matter of days it will finally dawn on Brown that his take it or leave it approach to reform won’t wash anymore.”