Page last updated at 16:51 GMT, Friday, 5 February 2010

Clare Short gets her day in Iraq inquiry spotlight

By Peter Biles
BBC world affairs correspondent

Around nine o'clock on Tuesday morning, the posse of press photographers outside the Iraq inquiry glimpsed Clare Short striding purposefully towards them from the direction of Parliament Square.

Clare Short surrounded by photographers
There was much interest in Clare Short's appearance at the inquiry

She swept into the QEII Centre on the arm of one of the officials, but the former international development secretary needed no help.

She had come, not for her day in court exactly, but to place on record an outpouring of anger that has been festering for the past seven years.

This was to be no routine session and people had begun queuing early for access to the public gallery.

Ms Short did not disappoint those hoping to hear a critical and combative voice on Britain's involvement in Iraq.

'Difficult to handle'

From the outset, she tore into Tony Blair, the former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, "sofa" government and the workings of Whitehall.

Words like "misleading", "deceitful" and "secrecy" peppered her testimony. She explained why she resigned from the government in May 2003, and how she had felt "conned" by Prime Minister Blair.

The most well known and well regarded international development secretary of all time in any OECD country
Sir Suma Chakrabarti on Clare Short

One could understand why Mr Blair's former spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, had told the inquiry that Ms Short had been "very very difficult to handle" when she had been a minister.

It is also worth recalling however, that the Permanent Secretary in the Department for International Development in 2003, Sir Suma Chakrabarti, had described Ms Short as probably "the most well known and well regarded international development secretary of all time in any OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] country".

Ms Short described how in the run-up to war in 2003, Tony Blair's cabinet meetings were not the place where decisions were taken. "They were little chats", she said.

She was silenced by colleagues when she tried to question Lord Goldsmith's last-minute legal advice on 17 March, 2003, three days before the invasion of Iraq.

'Little chats'

For a time though, she had been having own "little chats", with Gordon Brown. She described the then chancellor of the Exchequer as "very unhappy and marginalised" by Mr Blair.

When Mr Brown appears before the inquiry in a few weeks, the committee will no doubt need to ask him whether indeed he told Ms Short in 2003: "Tony Blair is obsessed with his legacy and he thinks he can have a quick war and then a reshuffle".

After three hours, Sir John Chilcot thanked Ms Short. The cameras stayed on just long enough to catch the audience's applause, and she offered a nod of appreciation as she left the hearing room.

John Reid
Former Defence Secretary John Reid paid tribute to soldiers

Some of the other evidence this week did little to inspire confidence in Britain's defence capability.

We heard about essential Chinook helicopters grounded and kept "in a shed" because of software problems, while body armour and other equipment ended up in the wrong place when despatched to Iraq.

What is referred to by the military as "asset tracking", had been identified as a problem back in the Gulf War in 1991.

Perhaps most disturbing of all was the revelation from Sir Kevin Tebbit, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence at the time of the Iraq war, that Gordon Brown had instituted "a complete guillotine" on the 2003 budget settlement.

This forced the MoD to enter into a major savings exercise until relief came in the budget a year later.

In his evidence on 29 January, Tony Blair failed to mention the deaths of British service personnel, much to the chagrin of the bereaved families who were watching the session.

This week however, John Reid, a former cabinet colleague of Mr Blair's, paid handsome tribute to those who died in Iraq. He told the inquiry he wanted to record his "respect and admiration and deep sadness at the loss of life".

Mr Blair's special envoy in Iraq, Ann Clwyd, echoed the sentiment. She said she had "great understanding of the people who had lost husbands and sons during the military action".

She gave a reminder that coalition troops, civilians and many Iraqis had also died. Until now, the human cost of this conflict has been largely overlooked.

At the close of Ms Clwyd's testimony, the chairman Sir John Chilcot said the inquiry hoped to visit Iraq, but he could not commit to that yet.

The current wave of public hearings is now drawing to a close. Jack Straw will be recalled to give more evidence next Monday, but Gordon Brown will appear before the inquiry in a few weeks' time.

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