UK Politics

What's next for the Iraq inquiry?

Image caption Looking at conflict planning is a major part of the Chilcot inquiry

They're back. In fact, the four knights and a baroness never really went away.

Not for them a spell at a holiday camp for "resting" government employees.

No, while many of us were distracted by an election which removed from office the last of those who took us to war, the members of the Chilcot inquiry have been travelling - to France and America, to hear more evidence - and studying.

The fruit of their labours is that they now have a razor-sharp recall of what has gone before.

For those outside the Chilcot purdah, the memories of past evidence are hazier. But some witnesses still stand out.

Like his post-Downing Street tan, Tony Blair's testimony was striking. There were no regrets, just a sadness at the divisive nature of the conflict and a six-hour justification of why, post 9/11, a WMD-possessing Saddam Hussein could no longer be contained. He had to be confronted and disarmed.

Mr Blair's foreign policy adviser, Sir David Manning, told the hearing that the former prime minister had made it clear to George Bush, 11 months before the war began, that, if the UN route failed, Britain would be ready to undertake regime change.

Brown denial

Then there was another once-powerful - now rather more elusive - Labour figure.

Gordon Brown's justification for the conflict he supported and helped to finance as chancellor was subtly different. He argued that, after the Cold War, the world could not tolerate states or terrorists defying international rules.

Mr Brown also confronted a persistent criticism of his time in government. He denied starving the armed forces of equipment, though, embarrassingly, he later had to admit he had made an error when giving evidence on defence spending.

Why we went to war is obviously at the heart of this inquiry. So, too, is the vexed question of whether or not the soldiers who died did so in a conflict which was legal.

Two senior advisers at the Foreign Office - one of whom resigned on principle - have argued it was not. Having shared their doubts throughout 2002, the attorney general at the time changed his mind very late in the day, but Lord Goldsmith insisted he had not come under political pressure.

The remit of these hearings is wide: not just the march to war, but the years afterwards. The examination, so far, of this terrain has yielded some of the more memorable and some of the more depressing images.

Clegg in spotlight

Witness after witness has spoken of the dire lack of planning by the Bush administration for a post-Saddam Iraq.

Some in the military talked of having to tackle an "insurgency on steroids", while also helping Iraqi farmers with their tomato harvest. And a British diplomat in Basra recounted how he could only communicate with London via a Yahoo account on a computer borrowed from the Americans.

That was then. Now, the stage is set for yet more testimony. Away from the featureless inquiry room, one man - who was not even an MP when we went to war - could have an impact on how the hearings progress.

In opposition, Nick Clegg accused Gordon Brown of "suffocating" the inquiry and attempting to gag it by keeping vital documents classified. In power, the deputy prime minister has said there needs to be a presumption of disclosure. The Chilcot Inquiry, he stressed, needs to be fully open.

Observers will be watching to see if Mr Clegg, who is in charge of the Cabinet Office, which regulates the release of such information, acts on these words.

The inquiry team itself has read tens of thousands of government documents. But the total number available to you and me via their website stands at just 33.

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