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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 February, 2004, 12:21 GMT
Analysis: Blair gives ground

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Tony Blair looked just as relaxed, confident and certain of himself as he did when he last appeared before this Commons committee six months ago.

Tony Blair
Blair adopted shirt sleeve approach
He adopted his now traditional, shirt-sleeves, first-names, we're all jolly good chaps together attitude to the liaison committee.

He even somehow managed to arrange for the delivery of a personal tea tray part way through the proceedings to add to his laid back, commanding image.

And, just as in July of last year, he showed no sign whatsoever that he ever entertained a scintilla of doubt over his decision to take Britain to war on Iraq.

This time, however, he had to make concessions.

Position shift

He said he had to accept that the head of the Iraq Survey Group searching for Iraq's WMD had not found any actual weapons, and now believed none would be found.

And he now believed it was right to have an inquiry into the intelligence which formed the basis of the justification for the war.

These are two pretty big concessions to his critics.

Critics want inquiry to look at justification for war
They represent fundamental shifts of position from the prime minister who, before the war, insisted Saddam had chemical and biological weapons he was able to activate within 45 minutes and, after the war, insisted no inquiry was necessary and the intelligence was sound.

Now he appears to accept there might not have been weapons, only "programmes" - a position which he has been working towards for some time - and that the intelligence may have been flawed.

He did not say so in as many words. But that is the conclusion many will draw from his performance before the MPs.

What will dismay his critics, however, was his statement that: "We can't end up having an inquiry into whether the war was right or wrong. That is something that we have got to decide. We are the politicians."

Political judgements

And it is clear that is one of the points of dispute with the Liberal Democrats over the terms of reference for the inquiry.

Right to remove Saddam Hussein
The Lib Dems wanted the inquiry - likely to echo the post-Falklands Franks inquiry with senior civil servants and members of each political party - to consider the political judgements in the run up to war.

Nor will his critics be happy with his claim he went to war to uphold UN resolutions, despite the UN's refusal to back war, or that the justification was the risk posed by an unstable state with a WMD "capability."

But, as he said himself, no matter what is discovered to vindicate him, those critics will still insist he was wrong to go to war.

And he mapped out what is now his regular line that: "Whatever is discovered as a result of that inquiry, I do not accept that it was wrong to remove Saddam Hussein or the world is not a safer or better place for that."

Committee member Tony Wright probably put his finger on the question near the front of many people's minds when he asked the prime minister if he believed MPs would still have voted for war if they had known then what they know now about WMD.

There was no hesitation from Mr Blair: "Yes."

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