The Iraq Inquiry is the fourth official inquiry into the war and had recalled Mr Blair to clarify "inconsistencies" between his evidence and that given by other officials.
The former prime minister, looking tanned from the Middle East where he works as a peace envoy, soon settled into the same themes as during his first evidence session at the inquiry a year ago, framing the decision to go to war in the context of a post-911 world where the assessment of risk from the regime had changed.
Tony Blair once again echoed his warnings over Iran, saying that he “passionately” believed the West had to stop it’s “wretched posture of apology" over the Iraq war, and face up to the real nature of the regime.
Mr Blair focused more in this session on the political challenges he faced, painting himself as a lynchpin figure brokering a way forward between the hard-line US stance and an overcautious UN dragged back by Jacques Chirac, at the same time as juggling political challenges at home.
Mr Blair said that there were two standpoints for handling the Iraq threat, one represented by him, the other by Jacques Chirac.
“One view is this extremism it is an encrustment on an otherwise manageable situation. Don't over-worry about it. Don't provoke it. Don't stimulate it. Just manage the situation,” Mr Blair said.
“The other view, which is my view, is that this thing is deep. Its potential to wreak enormous and devastating damage is huge and we have to confront it.”
Mr Blair denied that he had given George Bush an unconditional agreement to invade Iraq, but did not shy away from saying that he had always said Britain would stand “shoulder to shoulder with the US".
He said that had he not been given the legal go-ahead – which was not granted until just before the invasion – he would have had to withdraw from the invasion plans drawn up with the United States.
The Iraq Inquiry, known as the Chilcott Inquiry after its chairman Sir John Chilcott, was set up to establish what lessons could be learned from the invasion. The use of historians instead of lawyers in the inquiry panel has been criticised for a perceived failure to grapple with the legal questions, and with the likes of Tony Blair and Jack Straw – themselves trained lawyers tempered by years of political debates. Despite several high-profile evidence sessions, the inquiry, however, is predominantly focused on analysing the documentary evidence.
At his first evidence session to the inquiry last year, Mr Blair was asked whether he had any regrets. His answer “no” drew angry shouts from the audience and made headlines around the world the next day.
He sought to clarify this at the end of his session last week, explaining that he had taken the question to mean did he have any regrets specifically about the decision to go to war, but that he did regret “deeply and profoundly” the loss of life.
“Too late!” shouted a woman from the audience, before she walked out of the hearing, as others shouted out before being silenced by Sir John Chilcott.
Continued on next page Mr Blair swept away suggestions that the Cabinet had not been appropriately briefed
The inquiry probed the oft-made criticism of the decision to go to war, and that the case for war had bypassed the proper system, with Mr Blair personally threading it through the warp and weave of government with his sofa-style management.
But Mr Blair swept away suggestions that the Cabinet had not been appropriately briefed on the case for and against war, saying that with the issue of Iraq making headlines daily, it “defied logic and common sense” to suggest that they weren’t aware of the issues.
He also appeared to criticise president Obama’s policy of appeasement.
“President Obama goes in March 2009 to Cairo in the heart of Islam. He makes a speech where he says effectively 'Put aside the Bush era. I am now offering the hand of friendship. You, Iran can come into partnership. You are an ancient proud civilisation. We will welcome you in.'
“What's the response he gets? They carry on with the terrorism. They carry on with the destabilisation. They carry on with the nuclear weapons programme. At some point we have to get our heads out of the sand and understand they are going to carry on with this,” he said.
The panel pressed Mr Blair on the period of time when the Attorney General had been advising Mr Blair that an invasion would have been illegal, asking why he had not raised the issue with the US president or mentioned it to Parliament.
Mr Blair said that he took the legal advice to be provisional.
“I was going to take the view", said Mr Blair, "there might come a point at which I had to say to the President of the United States, to all the other allies 'I can't be with you'. I might have said that on legal grounds if Peter's [Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General] advice had not ... come down on the other side. I might have had to do that politically. I was in a very, very difficult situation politically. It was by no means certain that we would get this thing through the House of Commons and so on.”
Mr Blair returned several times to the theme of the political pressure he was under, how he had to “hold the political line” in what he described as very, very difficult circumstances. He used this to justify the non-disclosure of the legal advice.
“I was aware of the fact I had not just the United States as our key ally and our military alongside their military – right – working on the basis they were going to be there, 40 nations lined up, all of whom had real political difficulties backing this, and obviously the prospect, which is still the prospect I hope we find ourselves in, with Saddam confronted by an international consensus.
“If I had through that period in January and February gone out and said anything that indicated there was a breach in the British position, that there was a chink of light that had opened up, it would have been a political catastrophe for us.”
Mr Blair said that the political need to hold the line was the reason he had told Parliament that the second UN resolution was preferable not essential, when the legal advice at the time had been the latter.
But Mr Blair’s justification was challenged by Sir Roderic Lyne: "Can you really distinguish, speaking to the House of Commons as prime minister, between making a political point and a legal point when you are making a point about a legal interpretation of UN resolutions? If you say to the House of Commons 'I am not going to defer to an unreasonable veto', would they not assume that you are speaking with authority as a prime minister, not just making a political point while your Attorney the day before has told you 'This is not a valid point'?"
Mr Blair did not answer the question directly.