Friday, 12 June 2009

Brown's fake non-announcement opens the door

It's now looking very unlikely - I could still be proved wrong - that Gordon Brown will announce his long-promised Iraq inquiry this week. It looks as if reports that such an announcement was imminent were another bit of baseless spin, gobbled up by a gullible press. On the bright side, there is still time to make sure the inquiry is not a stitch-up.

The story began on Saturday night with the Sunday Telegraph's Patrick Hennessy claiming that Brown was "poised" to announce details of the inquiry:
He could make the announcement within days as part of his “fightback” plan aimed at reasserting his political authority and appeasing his critics on Labour’s backbenches.
It seems the context, that Blair was keen to throw Labour MPs a bone as he fought for survival, was more accurate than the substantive story, although the claim that Brown "could" make the announcement "within days" was sufficiently hedged - and meaningless - not to be proved wrong.

Yesterday Downing Street told me that no announcement was imminent and that the matter was in the hands of the cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, as other outlets had reported. This suggests that the process of setting up the inquiry is still at an early stage.

On balance, this is good news it suggests that Brown may not simply announce an inquiry on his terms, i.e. long, secret, and focusing on the post-invasion debacle rather than the pre-war deception, and may consult opposition parties and others on what it should look like.

One group that is very keen to have an input is the all party public administration select committee (PASC), which held a seminar yesterday to ask exactly this question. At the meeting, held under the Chatham House rule, were many of the great and the good, including, as the PASC press release coyly put it "chairs of previous inquiries" and... me.

After the meeting, the PASC's chairman, Labour MP Tony Wright said:
“The Iraq inquiry is a fundamental opportunity to explore issues about which there has been significant public disquiet for some time. The point that emerged most strongly from our seminar was the following: only if the inquiry is conducted in a manner which is legitimate and credible—and is seen to be so—will the public be assured that it is not a whitewash. In my own view, this will require a process of engagement on the inquiry’s purpose and conduct, and Parliament’s agreement to the form of inquiry that is proposed.”
Quite right.

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