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At last the mandarins get their revenge in triplicate

Simon Jenkins

AS TONY BLAIR sat in Downing Street reading the Butler report on Tuesday night, the enemy was gathering half a mile to the east. Under the mighty vault of the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, the most powerful freemasonry in Britain assembled. Limousines brought the permanent heads of the great offices of state. The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, arrived with his two predecessors. Summoned were the law officers of the Crown, Lords Woolf, Phillips and Goldsmith. They were joined by the private secretary to the Queen, the head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, diplomats, Joint Intelligence Committee chairmen, courtiers and quangocrats. There was nothing so vulgar as an MP, save for the unobtrusive presence of the Foreign Secretary. When speeches were made in honour of Sir Hayden Phillips, the retiring Permanent Secretary for the Lord Chancellor’s Department, the jokes were duly impenetrable. When news was brought by the Lord Chancellor in person of Tony Blair’s defeat in the House of Lords, the rejoicing was properly muted.

Then the throng parted and there glided into the hall the hero of the hour, the lofty figure of Lord Butler of Brockwell. Here was their champion, their former leader, Lancelot back at the Round Table. These were men and women to whom, once upon a time, every Whitehall heart was open and from whom no secrets were hid. They had risen to power on the yeast of the British constitution and formed its crust. Mr Blair had shut them out, and now revenge was in the air. They were gathered as Drake at bowls before the Armada. They were the Duchess of Richmond’s ball before Waterloo. They were Washington on the banks of the Potomac.

Lord Butler has written them two reports. One is a meticulous study of modern intelligence, and is as Downing Street might have hoped. It offers a corrective to Lord Hutton, who last spring committed the unpardonable sin of implausibility. Lord Butler was asked whether the Prime Minister was a liar or a fool in presenting the case for invading Iraq. He gave the right answer, a fool with mitigating circumstances.

He concluded, as must any sensible person, that Downing Street cooked the books before the invasion. It distorted intelligence, over-egged the pudding and pulled a fast one with “45 minutes”. But its intentions were not deliberately mendacious, more faults of inexperience and eagerness.

Lord Butler clearly took the view that we knew already that this war was declared on a false prospectus and tens of thousands died as a result. We have already choked on Mr Blair’s excuse that Saddam Hussein killed lots of people too, and choked on his claim that Iraq is “a safer place” as a result. Like the Franks report on the Falklands, Lord Butler seems happy for the evidence to speak for itself. He lets history pass final judgment. His job was to find out the facts and apply, if not whitewash, at least a light coat of grey. If everyone was to blame, then so was no one.

Now for the other Butler report. This is not about cooking books. It is about handling the caterers. In his final chapter Lord Butler turns to Mr Blair’s style of regime. He is unequivocal. This style, he says, “lessened the support of the mechanism of government for the collective responsibility of the Cabinet”. Its “informality and circumscribed character” meant that ministers could make little input to decisions. Mr Blair’s use of “frequent but unscripted” meetings and the neglect of official papers beforehand was “of concern”. This was the more dangerous where “in the vital matter of war and peace . . . the quality of judgment is all the more important”.

This criticism is mandarin-speak for savage. It is what those gathered in the Royal Courts of Justice wanted to read. It was payback time for seven years of humiliation, seven years of “what Tony wants”, of sofa government, unminuted meetings, initiativitis, cronyism and spin. Mr Blair’s aide, Jonathan Powell, had warned the Civil Service on coming to power in 1997 that it would have to change “from a feudal system of barons to a more Napoleonic system”. He was as good as his word.

The final words of the Butler report are the barons’ revenge. They are revenge for Mr Blair insisting that his aides be allowed to boss civil servants. They are revenge for daily humiliation by Alastair Campbell and by political advisers and dodgy lobbyists. They are revenge for Mr Blair’s view that he need only descend into Churchill’s bunker for the fuel strike, foot-and-mouth and the War on Terror to evaporate overnight.

In a fit of exasperation, the last Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, told Mr Blair: “Your problem is that neither you nor anyone in No 10 has ever run anything.” When the Prime Minister replied that he had at least run the Labour Party, Sir Richard’s retorted that he had led the party, “but not run it”. Mr Blair’s response was to reject the Civil Service as “the forces of conservatism” and demote the Cabinet Secretary from the inner sanctum of his sofa.

To Lord Butler, the Iraq intelligence debacle was a case history of what Mr Blair and his cronies had done to his beloved Civil Service. The degeneration of carefully nuanced intelligence as it rose up the assessment hierarchy might be no different from what happened before the Falklands. What was new in the case of Iraq was that Downing Street itself was stripped of normal checks and balances and denuded of independent-minded advice. Even the Cabinet no longer operated.

The television series, Yes, Minister is globally popular not because it is funny but because it is true, reflecting a vital balance of power between politics and administrative stability. Mr Blair was not the first to upset that balance. Margaret Thatcher began it with “not one of us”. But her Civil Service came to understand where she was going and what she wanted.

When Mr Blair came to power nobody knew where he was going, except on to the front page of the next day’s newspaper. That is until he wanted to go to war. Then his Napoleon instinct came into its own. As all dictators know, leadership shines in time of war. It is no surprise that Mr Blair found his most satisfying moments when acting as statesman and war leader. Only then do the trumpets of glory drown out the dull rhythm of Treasury drums and the whingeing of spending ministers.

The irony is that the war Mr Blair chose to fight was one that cut him off from his diplomatic and military advisers. Hardly an ambassador or a general approved of Iraq, a disapproval Mr Blair could handle only by retreating to his bunker. This retreat further corrupted the intelligence that he felt he needed to win public trust and legal support.

Lord Butler clearly believes that no government can be run on Napoleonic lines. The Northcote-Trevelyan Civil Service was created 150 years ago to replace a corrupt and incompetent executive based on ministerial patronage, an executive for which Mr Blair seems to yearn. Northcote-Trevelyan led to a cadre, eventually a complete career structure, based on merit and immune to favouritism. Its loyalty was to public service, its ethos non-partisan. It may have been conservative, but in its absence last year no spy dared to tell the emperor his dossier was naked.

A ruler cannot operate without courageous advice. He cannot subcontract the wisdom of experience to parvenus or sycophants. In handling railways, the health service, schools, universities, the euro, Downing Street could ignore officialdom with no one to notice. But distorting intelligence in time of war is dangerous. Someone always talks. Dead bodies cannot be hidden.

The lesson of Iraq is that Mr Blair should, as Sir Richard Wilson implied, lead his administration, not try to run it. He should crave advice from those beyond the reach of his patronage. He should revert to Northcote-Trevelyan. On this, for sure, Lord Butler is right.