/ 4 March 2010

Brown faces Iraq War grilling as election looms

Brown Faces Iraq War Grilling As Election Looms

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown faces a grilling over his role in the Iraq War in front of a public inquiry on Friday, in an appearance fraught with risk ahead of a general election expected within weeks.

Former premier Tony Blair has been endlessly questioned about Britain’s part in the 2003 invasion — including by the inquiry in January — but Brown has kept largely silent about his involvement while serving as Blair’s finance minister.

Commentators suggest Brown held back from taking part in preparations until just before the war, although he has recently faced damaging allegations that, while in control of the Treasury, he squeezed the armed forces’ budget.

Whether he emerges as a bit-part player or a key decision-maker, the hearing is a wild card ahead of an election expected to take place on May 6.

Inquiry chairperson John Chilcot initially said he would not call Brown and other serving ministers until after the vote to avoid the hearing “being used as a platform for political advantage”.

However, the prime minister offered to appear beforehand, following pressure from political rivals.

After two years of trailing far behind the Conservatives in the opinion polls, Brown’s governing Labour Party has experienced a recent boost in support that has narrowed the opposition’s lead to between two and five percentage points.

However, the prime minister remains personally unpopular and any fresh revelations linking him to the still-divisive Iraq conflict — seen by many as a black mark on Labour’s 13 years in power — could be highly damaging.

At a press conference in January, Brown refused to be drawn on his involvement, but told reporters: “I stand by all the actions I have taken and I welcome the chance to explain.”

Despite his silence, a ComRes poll in the Independent last month suggested that 60% of the British public hold Brown as responsible for the war as Blair.

The appearance by Blair, the driving force behind Britain’s decision to go to war, was always going to be the highlight of the inquiry, and more than 3 000 people applied to watch him in the 60-seating capacity hearing room.

By contrast, only 323 applications were made for Brown’s hearing.

Greater pitfalls
But the political pitfalls are far greater for Brown, in particular over how he funded the military, which lost 179 soldiers in the campaign and is currently engaged in fierce fighting in Afghanistan.

Brown was finance minister from 1997 until 2007, when he took over from Blair as prime minister.

In his testimony to the inquiry in January, the defence secretary at the time, Geoff Hoon, said his ministry had lacked funds for years before the war.

Kevin Tebbit, then the top civil servant at the Defence Ministry, has also said Brown had imposed a “guillotine” on the defence budget in September 2003, six months after the invasion.

Accounts differ, meanwhile, on Brown’s role in the political build-up.

Clare Short, then a Cabinet minister, told the inquiry that Brown had been “marginalised”, but Blair’s former communications chief, Alastair Campbell, said he was part of a key consultation group on Iraq.

A new account emerged this week in a book by political commentator Andrew Rawnsley, who wrote that “Brown had not advertised any dissent, but neither had he been conspicuously supportive” in the months running up to the war.

Rawnsley said this changed when Blair’s attempts to get a second United Nations resolution endorsing military action failed, threatening the whole operation and Blair’s job, after which Brown became “very engaged” on Iraq.

Brown helped win over wavering Labour lawmakers ahead of the parliamentary vote on the war, the book said, citing key Blair aide Sally Morgan as saying: “In the final days, Gordon was absolutely core.” — AFP