Senior figures from Labour and the Scottish National party are considering calls for legal action against Tony Blair if the former prime minister faces severe criticisms from the long-awaited inquiry into the war in Iraq.
A number of MPs led by Alex Salmond are expected to use an ancient law to try to impeach the former prime minister when the Chilcot report comes out on Wednesday.
The law, last used in 1806 when the Tory minister Lord Melville was charged for misappropriating official funds, is seen in Westminster as an alternative form of punishment that could ensure Blair never holds office again.
Triggering the process simply requires an MP to propose a motion and provide supporting evidence as part of a document called the article of impeachment which has no time limit placed upon it. If the impeachment attempt is approved by MPs, the defendant is delivered to Black Rod before a trial.
A simple majority is required to convict, at which point a sentence can be passed which could, in theory, involve Blair being sent to prison. However, MPs have said the attempt will be symbolic and is unlikely to result in imprisonment.
Salmond, the former Scottish first minister, said there “has to be a judicial or political reckoning” for Blair’s role in the Iraq conflict. “He seemed puzzled as to why Jeremy Corbyn thinks he is a war criminal, why people don’t like him,” he told Sky News.
“The reason is 179 British war dead, 150,000 immediate dead from the Iraq conflict, the Middle East in flames, the world faced with an existential crisis on terrorism – these are just some of the reasons perhaps he should understand why people don’t hold him in the highest regard.
“[MPs] believe you cannot have a situation where this country blunders into an illegal war with the appalling consequences and at the end of the day there isn’t a reckoning. There has to be a judicial or political reckoning for that.”
John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, did not disagree with the suggestion that he and Corbyn were going to “crucify” the former leader for “being a war criminal”.
Questioned by Dermot Murnaghan on Sky News, McDonnell said he did not rule out calling for Blair to be prosecuted for war crimes. “I want to see the Chilcot report. Nobody can comment on this until we see the report itself and I’m hoping that the report will be thorough and for me the importance is not Tony Blair or any individuals – it’s about the processes so we never ever get into this tragic, tragic mess again with such loss of life,” he said.
But John Prescott called for Labour’s leadership not to increase tensions within the party by making “very angry statements” about the Iraq war.
“Bitter division within the PLP talking about different parties can only be made worse by very angry statements about Iraq,” Lord Prescott told the BBC’s Sunday Politics show. “We can have a proper debate, but keep it less personal. Let’s debate it and probably learn from the lessons and avoid such a terrible situation.”
Blair refused to comment on Chilcot before it is made public. “Wednesday is the time the report is published. I have said many times over these past years I will wait for the report and then I will make my views known and express myself fully and properly,” he told Sky News.
“I have taken the view, I think rightly or wrongly, we should wait for the report to be published and then I will express myself and I’m not getting into either the politics or the detail of it until I’ve actually seen it.”
When asked why some Labour members hate him “so fundamentally” he replied: “I don’t know” and added: “There may be lots of reasons for it but politics is a strange business.”
Blair continued: “Politics it goes in waves of sentiment and feeling. I think one of the most important things in politics is to do what you think is right. In the end you might be right or wrong but ultimately I think leadership is about assessing the situation as you see it and doing what you think is right, even if it’s not always very popular.”
Sir John Chilcot’s report is expected to scrutinise Blair’s role in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The likelihood of Blair being tried for war crimes remains remote, according to reports. In an official statement to the Telegraph, the international criminal court (ICC) indicated that the decision to go to war remained outside its remit.
It means individual soldiers could be prosecuted for war crimes but not Blair.
The ICC, based in The Hague, has begun a preliminary examination of claims of torture and abuse by British soldiers, after receiving a dossier from human rights lawyers acting for alleged Iraqi victims.
In the statement, the office of the prosecutor at the ICC said: “We will take note of the Chilcot report when released in the context of its ongoing preliminary examination work concerning Iraq/UK. A preliminary examination is not an investigation but a process aimed at determining whether reasonable basis exist to open an investigation. As already indicated by the office in 2006, the ‘decision by the UK to go to war in Iraq falls outside the court’s jurisdiction’.”
The prosecutor’s office said the ICC was looking at introducing a “crime of aggression” which would cover illegal invasions but that “has not yet crystallised and in any event, will not apply retroactively”.
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