PMQs: Nick tackles Gordon on Labour’s “suffocating and shameful culture of secrecy”

by Stephen Tall on November 25, 2009

Ah, the joy of PMQs – Nick asks Gordon a question, Gordon fails to answer a totally different question to the one Nick asks. It’s a regular pattern, but today it was clear to everyone that the Lib Dem leader had floored the Prime Minister over the issue of Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry into the events leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

Nick laid the trap neatly, asking the simple and straightforward question:

It is vital that the Iraq inquiry, which started its work this week, is able to reveal the full truth about the decisions leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Will the Prime Minister therefore confirm that when Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues come to publish their final report, they will able to publish all information available to them, with the sole exception of information essential to national security?

In fact, Nick was simply asking the Prime Minister to re-confirm the pledge he made in June, when announcing the inquiry:

I have asked the members of the committee to ensure that the final report will be able to disclose all but the most sensitive information—that is, all information except that which is essential to our national security.”

To give him some kind of credit, Mr Brown seemed to sense the trap that Nick was laying, choosing to ignore entirely Nick’s question, and instead waffling vague assurances that “I have set out a remit”, and “that is a matter for the inquiry.” His refusal to repeat the pledge he made just five months ago was telling, and Nick picked up on it sharply:

As I think the Prime Minister must know, the matter is not just for the inquiry, because his Government have just issued a protocol—I have it here—to members of the inquiry, governing the publication of material in the final report. If he reads it, he will see that it includes nine separate reasons why information can be suppressed, most of which have nothing to do with national security. Outrageously, it gives Whitehall Departments individual rights of veto over the information in the final report. Why did the Prime Minister not tell us about that before? How on earth will we, and the whole country, hear the full truth of the decisions leading up to the invasion of Iraq if the inquiry is suffocated on day one by his Government’s shameful culture of secrecy?

The Prime Minister was visibly winded by this – quite clearly he had no answer, and was left stringing out some heavily caveatted platitudes:

That is not what Sir John Chilcot has said. The issues affecting the inquiry that would cause people to be careful are national security and international relations. As I understand it, those are the issues referred to in the protocol. I believe that Sir John Chilcot and his team are happy with how they are being asked to conduct the inquiry.

It was a weak, evasive response, as even Mr Brown’s staunchest backbench lobby fodder would admit if they were being honest. It was noticeable that Nick was, for once, listened to in comparative silence by Labour/Tory MPs, instead of being heckled and shouted down: MPs on all sides of the House wanted to hear his question. Nick was aided by a strong issue, but this was without doubt one of his most effective performances at PMQs yet.

James Macintyre, currently the target of much OTT abuse on Tory blogs, called Nick the “star of the session”:

It was left to Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, to light up the House with two very sharp questions about the Chilcot inquiry into Britain’s involvement in the Iraq invasion. He highlighted various get outs the inquiry has been given when it comes to publishing material given to the inquiry — even when that material does not threaten national security. He also highlighted the “disgraceful” veto given to each Whitehall department on releasing material. He accused the Government of “suffocating” information to the inquiry and Brown’s reply — “that is not what John Chilcot has said” — was less than impressive to the House.

Which make sit all the more odd that the BBC’s Nick Robinson should choose to ignore Nick’s questions in his PMQs report, an omission which many of his readers have criticised.

The Tory leader, David Cameron, asked a series of questions about alleged Islamic extremism being publicly funded through independent schools. I make no judgement on the issue – like Mr Brown, though with more excuse, I have little knowledge of the schools in question – but Mr Cameron’s questions accentuated his natural tendency to become shrill when on the attack, allowing the Prime Minister to strike a calm and statesmanlike pose. It was telling that all the noise was coming from the Labour benches, rallying behind their leader, rather than from the Tories’, egging theirs on.

My ratings for this PMQs:
Nick Clegg 9, Gordon Brown 5, David Cameron 4.