evidence justifying the 2003 invasion was never challenged, Sir John Chilcot told MPs on Wednesday.
Giving evidence to a parliamentary committee, Chilcot said “sofa government”, in which ministers were not consulted on crucial decisions, reached a high point under Blair. This reflected Blair’s personal preferences, he said.
He said that on several occasions between 2002 and 2006- 07 “things were decided without reference to cabinet”. They included the legal basis on which the UK went to war in 2003 as part of a US-led coalition and the decision, once Saddam Hussein had been toppled, for Britain to take over the administration of four of Iraq’s southern provinces.
Referring to the evidence given to his inquiry, Chilcot said he recalled asking the then foreign secretary, Jack Straw, why the cabinet had not “provided more of a challenge” to Blair or demanded more information.
“The answer that came back was that Tony Blair had, as leader of the opposition and in government, rescued his party from a dire predicament. I had the sense from Straw’s answer that he had achieved a personal and political dominance, a sheer psychological dominance.
“He [Blair] had been right. Was he not right this time? That’s what I took from Mr Straw’s evidence.”
Chilcot was testifying for the first time since his devastating report on the Iraq war – seven years in the making – was published in July. The report eviscerated Blair’s style of government and decision-making and said that there was “no imminent threat” from Iraq when Blair decided to invade.
It also revealed that in a remarkable private note sent on 28 July 2002 Blair promised the then US president, George W Bush: “I will be with you, whatever.”
Giving evidence on Wednesday, Chilcot said the cabinet was never told about the note. Only Jonathan Powell – Blair’s chief of staff – and David Manning – the UK’s ambassador to the U S– were aware of its existence.
“Both tried to persuade him [Blair] not to use those form of words. But he did,” Chilcot said. Straw found out about it after it had been issued, and when it was too late to say “you shouldn’t write it”, Chilcot added.
Chilcot said that in future those at the top of Whitehall should challenge ministers, even if their advice was not ultimately taken, and should also make a note of what they said at the time.
He told MPs: “It’s vital for serious decisions to be recorded in the public archive, not for immediate release necessarily, but they should be written down.
“If someone is in serious disagreement the reason for that decision, and the fact of it, should be recorded. [This] allows different voices to be heard.”
Chilcot acknowledged, as he did in his July report, that Saddam’s regime was “barbaric and beyond any kind of defence”. He stressed, however: “That didn’t amount either in international law or other grounds for the invasion of a sovereign country. We haven’t been in that business since 1945.”
Speaking to the Commons liaison committee, Chilcot said he absolved Blair of the gravest charge frequently made against him: that he had deliberately set out to “deceive parliament and the public”. The former prime minister was to blame in that he used his “very real powers of advocacy and persuasion” in support of a dubious case for war.
Blair also “overestimated” his ability to influence US decision-making on Iraq, Chilcot said. In September 2002 Blair did manage to persuade Bush to turn to the UN and seek international support for military action. But by the end of that year it was clear that the “military timetable had taken control of the diplomatic process, Chilcot said.
From the outset the Bush administration was set on regime change, Chilcot told MPs. Blair, by contrast, sought to reconcile the US’s goal with Britain’s objective, which was to disarm Saddam.
Chilcot accepted that on the eve of his crucial speech to parliament in March 2003, seeking approval for invasion, Blair genuinely believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The government’s Joint Intelligence Committee had wrongly told him this, Chilcot said.
At that point, however, there was “no evidence” Saddam intended to deploy such weapons against UK interests, he added. There was no imminent threat, Chilcot said. It later emerged that Saddam had secretly destroyed his chemical and biological weapons after the first Gulf War, and before international inspectors were allowed back into the country.
Asked who was most responsible for the Iraq disaster, Chilcot answered: Blair, Straw, and defence secretary Geoff Hoon. Blair and Straw were more experienced and therefore most at fault, he suggested.
Chilcot said he was satisfied with the positive public reaction to his report. He said it was “particularly welcome” that it had been accepted by the bereaved families of the 179 British service personnel killed in Iraq between 2003-2009.
“As things stand I’m reasonably encouraged that there is an attempt in government to address those lessons,” he added.
Chilcot said he was often asked what his most important finding was, at the end of a marathon exercise which eventually ran to 2.6m-words, and 12 volumes. After saying it was a “whole range of things” he offered an answer: “Failure to exert and exercise sufficient collective responsibility for a very big decision.”
Andrew Tyrie, the chair of the Treasury select committee, said the parliamentary hearing had been a useful exercise. “Sir John has started to put the final pieces of his conclusions into the public domain,” he said. Tyrie added that Blair “did not feel the need to be constrained by facts when putting his case to parliament”.