By Kampfner, John
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 132, No. 4645
In the best spirit of British amateurism, expect a fudge, a rushed job, a botched attempt to resolve one of the most important issues of our time. When the foreign affairs select committee pronounces on whether the government was guilty of "sexing up" claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, the government and its critics will seize on each clause, each line, to justify their arguments. Both will find enough to satisfy them. After all, if Tony Blair could portray a Commons rebellion of 140 on the eve of war as a victory, then all things are possible.
This sorry process has seen the British political system at its worst. In other countries, notably the United States that many love to hate, congressional committees are vested with authority; grandeur, resources and talent. They have powers to summon witnesses, and their reports have statutory authority. Their members have a salary commensurate with the status. Not in the UK, where committees are the repository of opposition backbenchers, plus the has-beens, the never-will-bes and the pliant desperate-to-be Labour ministers. Throughout its questioning, the select committee struggled to keep up with the detail. Alastair Campbell ran rings around it, Jack Straw got cross with it, and the public is little the wiser.
The committee has been deep in discussion over its conclusions, expected on 7 July. So has Downing Street. So has the BBC. The findings have been reduced to a football match between these two powerful organisations. The smart money at Westminster, where matters of great import are given the imprimatur of the bloke in the pub, is on a score draw or a no-score draw. The predictions are that Campbell will be criticised for the "dodgy dossier". The government will be attacked for not co-operating enough with the committee. It will be told to tighten its procedures in presenting intelligence material. On the issue of the September 2002 dossier, the committee might decide it has insufficient evidence to show that Campbell put pressure on the intelligence services. He will proclaim himself exonerated, and the press will be encouraged to move on.
For BBC executives, this tussle has been perturbing and exhilarating. "Greg's absolutely loving it," says one semor manager. "Deep down, there must still be a journalist in there." The appointments of Greg Dyke as director-general and Gavyn Davies as chairman of the BBC were denounced as examples of "Tony's cronies". But it was always likely that they would compensate or overcompensate for their new Labour links. …