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Sunday 7 February 2010

Short was hardcore in dishing the dirt

Her evidence to the Chilcot inquiry was brave, but Clare is still trying to justify herself, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

'What did you think of Clare Short's evidence to the Iraq inquiry?" asked a friend the other night. "Hardcore, wasn't it?"

Even Tony Blair's spinmeister Alastair Campbell, once famously a porn writer and now, as a novelist, in with a chance of the literary Bad Sex Award ("I gripped the expensive fabric of her green dress in my two hands and I tore it. With a shimmer, the silk fell away to her waist. . ."), couldn't better that description.

Short was graphic and explicit and -- if you're taking the more polite definition of 'hardcore' -- also intractable, immovable and intransigent.

She was there to dish the dirt on Blair (he ran a secretive "dysfunctional government", which pre-war was "a bit of a lunatic asylum" and generally excluded and misled the colleagues outside his magic circle, especially Short), Campbell ("he and I never got on. I didn't obey him, and, therefore, he would brief against you and that's how the government worked"), the Chief of the Defence Staff ("he'd spent a lot of his life in submarines and it showed") and anyone else who had earned her displeasure.

Initially, she was relatively soft on Gordon Brown, who "was pushed out and marginalised at the time, and having cups of coffee with me and saying: 'Tony Blair is obsessed with his legacy and he thinks he can have a quick war and then a reshuffle'".

But then he got "back in with Tony, blaming the French (for blocking a crucial UN resolution). It was all different. No more cups of coffee".

It was all hugely entertaining and showed Short at her courageous best. "Whatever differences Clare Short and I may have had from time to time," said Tony Blair at the inquiry, "the one thing I would never accuse her of being is backward in coming forward."

Personally, I can't stand her. I've met her a few times and dislike her because I find her both self-satisfied and humourless.

But I get a thrill from seeing a tough woman in full flow, and fond though I am of chaps, I think it good that their unwritten rules are sometimes broken. Women just aren't as clubbable as men, which makes them more inclined to be whistle blowers.

And as scandals concerning bankers and lawyers and property developers and politicians and clergy and really the whole of Irish society have taught us recently, every society needs whistle blowers who put the public interest ahead of the club, even though they will probably end up frozen out and possibly ruined.

Just ask Marta Andreasen, now a UKIP MEP, but once the EU's Chief Accountant, whose refusal to sign off dodgy accounts and her subsequent revelations of fraud had her condemned as disloyal and ultimately sacked by the Brussels suits.

But although Short was interesting on the flaws of Blair's form of government, there were good reasons why commentators were describing parts of her testimony as vindictive, vehement, vicious, vengeful and venomous (what is it about the letter 'v'?).

Now let me declare my interest. I think it was right to invade Iraq, that with all his faults, Blair had vision in foreign affairs, that international law is so confused that its main purpose is to enrich lawyers, that the UN is a mess, that Saddam had the capacity to make weapons of mass destruction and that looking at the horrifying vista that faces us now that Iran is busily manufacturing nuclear weapons, I'm grateful that we don't have Iraq doing the same.

I do, however, agree with Short that the planning for post-war Iraq was abysmal.

However, it's hard to avoid the feeling that what's primarily bugging Short is that she didn't resign over Iraq when logically she should have done, so she's on a continuing journey of self-justification.

By waiting for two months until May 2003 to follow Robin Cook out of the Cabinet, she allowed him to garner all the available moral credit.

She claims she hung on because Blair made her various assurances that he didn't honour, but that argument doesn't wash with those critics who think she just couldn't bear to give up power until she really had no alternative.

Over the ensuing years, Short has justified her inaction and vilified her former colleagues in articles, interviews, and a book, and she ultimately resigned the Labour whip.

Her detractors point to someone who suffers from as little self-doubt as Tony Blair, who trumpets her principles but suppressed her more extreme views (for example, troops out and banning page-three girls) when she wanted a job from New Labour.

These days, she's once more becoming a darling of the left through her vicious attacks on Israel.

That's Clare Short. Hardcore to the end.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards