Britain's Iraq War Inquiry Haunts Gordon Brown

When Gordon Brown last year announced an inquiry into Britain's role in the Iraq War, commentators were quick to applaud his political savvy. For the prime minister, this was a risk-free gesture to history and public opinion. It would be a chance to learn the lessons of the conflict without an embarrassing final report appearing right before the election coming in the next few months. (The commission wraps up later.) Better still, attention would focus not on Brown but on Tony Blair, Brown's old rival and predecessor, who marched an unwilling country into war. With luck, the inquiry would bury both Blair and Iraq.

But Brown hadn't reckoned with the undead of Westminster politics, the tribe of former colleagues with scores to settle or reputations to salvage. Over the last seven years, Brown has deftly managed to distance himself from responsibility for the conflict, quietly suggesting he was no more than a loyal but unwilling supporter of the invasion. Yet that's not the picture emerging from the latest testimony. On Friday, Tony Blair takes the stand, and the spotlight, at the inquiry—and Brown is going to get burned by the glare.

The tribunal's style is understated—the five members are all establishment figures—and the probing is gentle. But key witnesses have needed little encouragement to offload. Take Blair's former spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, who told the inquiry that Brown was a member of the inner circle that Blair consulted in private over the war—and that he was "closely involved" in decision-making. Or former defense minister Geoff Hoon, who fingered Brown (who ran the nation's treasury in 2003) for denying funds to the armed forces, with lasting effects. It was Brown's penny pinching, according to Hoon, that led to the army's current shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan.

It won't be so easy for Brown to respond. The original plan had been for him to deliver his testimony after the election (which would keep Iraq from muddling his reelection message). But if he doesn't speak up now, he'll have no way to redeem himself before the polls open. So last week he announced that he was willing to give evidence at any time. That should win some points for openness. Remember how President Bush sidestepped the 9/11 inquiry ahead of the 2004 elections in the United States? At least Brown will now be spared the taunts of cowardice from his political opponents when campaigning begins in earnest. According to Downing Street, the prime minister wants the country to know he has nothing to hide.

On the other hand, the damage is already done. Voters may be weary of the who-knew-what-when detail, but the media hubbub means the most divisive war in recent British history won't be forgotten on polling day. The parade of politicians, generals, diplomats, and intelligence chiefs at the inquiry is a daily reminder of the most damaging episode in Labour's 13 years in power. Even today, there are still lingering questions about the legality of the war and the sincerity of ministers' belief in the dodgy evidence for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

The risk now is that Brown must answer the direct questions that he has always shunned in the past. Did he have deep, principled objections to the war? If so, why didn't he quit the government in protest? Even a threat of resignation might have scuppered Britain's participation in the whole venture. After all, Brown was no ordinary minister. As chancellor of the Exchequer, he was outranked only Blair. To fund a war, his signature was needed on the checks.

Few expect a polished performance when Brown takes his turn, probably next month or in March. This will be his first public quizzing over the Iraq affair. By contrast Blair has had plenty of occasions to rehearse his answers at the two more limited tribunals that have looked into the war. Antiwar campaigners have labeled Blair's appearance Friday "Judgment Day." But it's Gordon Brown who will be judged—on Election Day.