TONY Blair insisted he was “absolutely and emphatically” not responsible for delaying a key report into Britain’s role in the Iraq war and accused others of seeking to use the controversy to win votes.
Confirmation the findings of Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry into the Iraq war will not be published before May’s general election sparked a chorus of complaints in Westminster, with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg saying it would raise fears the final verdict was being “sexed down by individuals rebutting criticisms put to them by the inquiry”.
But the clear swipe at Mr Blair – whose case for taking Britain to war with Saddam Hussein in 2003 was alleged to have been “sexed up” – drew a sharp response from the former PM.
Mr Blair said he had “as much interest as anybody” in having the conclusions of the six-year process made public and had been instrumental in ensuring the inquiry was free to publish his notes to the US President George W Bush in the run-up to the US-led invasion.
“Just to state absolutely and emphatically, this is not to do with me, or as far as I’m aware any other witness,” he said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “I’ve as much interest as anybody in wanting to see the report published.
“The only issue was how much of those is it right publicly to publish. That has now been decided that they will be, partially at my own recommendation: if you’re going to publish them, publish them. If you’re going to do it, do it so people can see it.”
The inquiry was set up by then prime minister Gordon Brown in 2009 and took public evidence from its last witness in 2011, but publication has been held up by wrangling over the release of the confidential messages and the so-called “Maxwellisation” process by which people criticised in the report are given the chance to respond.
Inquiry chairman Sir John has revealed Mr Blair’s notes to Mr Bush will now be published alongside the report with only “a very small number of essential redactions” – an advance on the deal announced last year to expose only “quotes and gists”.
And Mr Blair suggested political rivals were seeking to rush publication forward to use the report as political ammunition.
“We’re limbering up for an election now, there’s a risk of it becoming politicised,” he said. “They should be allowed to do their job, they should resist pressure from all quarters.”
Mr Clegg, whose Liberal Democrat party opposed the war, said the delay was “incomprehensible” and called on Sir John to produce a “more defined timetable, known publicly, with strict deadlines and a firm date for publication”.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage said it “smacks of an establishment cover-up” while SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon told Sir John she was “deeply disappointed” and urged him to publish before May.
Chair of the foreign affairs select committee Sir Richard Ottaway said there could be “no justification whatsoever” for the process dragging on and revealed Sir John had been summoned to explain to MPs.
Rose Gentle, from Glasgow, whose soldier son Gordon, 19, was among those who died in Iraq, said: “We just feel totally let down. We just feel it’s just going to be a total whitewash now.”
She said it was important the papers were published in full so families of the dead could understand the reason for going to war.
Mr Cameron, who was informed in a letter from Sir John that despite “very substantial progress” there was “no realistic prospect” of being ready by the election, said it was right he should appear before MPs.
But he played down speculation the process was being deliberately hampered by senior figures who could face criticism.
“It is a very thorough report and you have to give the people who are criticised the opportunity to respond,” he said.
“That is what is happening at the moment. I don’t believe, from what I understand, that anyone is trying to dodge this report or put off this report.”
Ed Miliband said he hoped it would be published “as soon as possible” but the PM said he added to the delays by voting against Tory attempts to have an inquiry set up before 2009.