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Blair's spectacular U-turn on legal advice leaves unanswered questions

By Andrew Grice Political Editor

29 April 2005

An attempt by Tony Blair to defuse Iraq as a general election issue by disclosing the Attorney General's private doubts about the legality of war has left a series of questions unanswered.

In a spectacular U-turn, Downing Street published a 13-page memo from Lord Goldsmith on 7 March 2003, including crucial caveats about military action omitted from his final legal advice backing the war 10 days later.

On a dramatic day, dubbed "Wobbly Thursday" at Labour HQ, Mr Blair again saw his election campaign derailed by Iraq. He gambled that, by revealing the memo he has repeatedly refused to publish, Labour would be able to return to the economy and public services before the election. He feared that, after two partial leaks in the past week, the Attorney General's full report would be disclosed early next week.

Some Labour insiders now regret the full advice was not published with the Butler report last July instead of in the heat of an election, which has allowed the Tories to portray Mr Blair as a "liar" and boosted the prospects of the Liberal Democrats, the only main party to oppose the war.

If the controversy continues into next week, Labour officials fear it could cost the party dozens of marginal seats. Last night, there was little sign Mr Blair's attempt to "clear the decks" had calmed the storm. Anti-war MPs claimed that the Commons, and even the Cabinet, might not have backed the conflict if they had been told of Lord Goldsmith's doubts. They said there was still no explanation why he changed his mind in the 10 days that elapsed between his two reports.

The qualifications revealed by No 10 yesterday included warnings that, unless Britain secured a fresh UN resolution, British soldiers and ministers could face prosecution in the international courts for intervening in Iraq and that legal action could have halted the war. The document disclosed the Attorney General's private doubts about Mr Blair's campaign to accuse France of exercising an "unreasonable" veto over military action, saying this had "no basis in law". It also undermined Mr Blair's increasing reliance during the election on the argument that Saddam Hussein had been removed on humanitarian grounds. The report said military action would have to be "proportionate" to the goal of securing Iraqi disarmament, adding: "Regime change cannot be the objective of military action."

Mr Blair said: "The key thing was the Attorney General's advice that it was lawful to proceed. This so-called smoking gun has turned out to be a damp squib because he did advise it was lawful to proceed." While a new UN resolution was preferable, it was not essential, so the crucial decision for the Cabinet on 17 March was not legal but political, he said.

Beside Mr Blair at a press conference, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, and Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, admitted they were not shown the 7 March document but insisted that there was a proper cabinet discussion of the legal and political implications of war.

Ms Hewitt said "the legal issues were touched on" in the full discussion at the critical cabinet meeting on 17 March which approved intervention in Iraq. Mr Brown said: "Once and for all, the myth that there was no cabinet involvement in this discussion should be set aside. Not only did we have the data available to us, but we had the opportunity to quiz the Attorney General on every aspect of it. And I know there were questions asked of him and replies given by him."

But that was contradicted by Clare Short, the former international development secretary. She wrote to Mr Blair seven weeks ago asking him to check the official cabinet record of what happened when Lord Goldsmith presented his report. "No questions or discussion was allowed and none took place," she said in her letter. Mr Blair has not replied. Friends of Ms Short claim the two ministers' account of the meeting is "false". They said the Cabinet was not told "one iota" about the caveats in the 7 March report. Tam Dalyell, the longest-serving MP, who is standing down, said the report showed that Mr Blair misled the Commons. "If a Labour government is elected, I trust my colleagues to do something about it. Meaning, to change the leader."

One senior Labour figure said: "If a lie is an intent to deceive, there is no doubt there was an intent to fool and mislead people and deceive them into thinking the Attorney General had given his unequivocal legal authority. All caveats were kept from ministers and they were given a dubious account of the facts."

Mr Brown gave his strongest support to Mr Blair on Iraq. Asked if he would have behaved in the same way, he said: "Yes." He added: "The decision was made in an honest, principled and clear way with all the evidence before us. And I can say this, that I not only trust Tony Blair, but I respect Tony Blair for the way he went about that decision, involving all members of the Cabinet."

Six issues that need to be addressed

  1. Why did the Attorney General apparently change his mind between 7 and 17 March 2003, shearing his legal opinion on the legality of war of all caveats? What further discussions took place over those 10 days to produce such an apparently dramatic volte-face? How significant was his meeting on 13 March with Lord Falconer, a close confidant of Mr Blair, and Sally Morgan, the Prime Minister's political fixer?

  2. When did Tony Blair first ask the Attorney General for his opinion on the legality of war? Was it as troops mobilised for the invasion or did it follow the Prime Minister's meeting with George Bush at the US President's ranch in Texas, in April 2002? What influence did White House advisers have on Lord Goldsmith? (John Bellinger, adviser to the National Security Council, is alleged to have said: "We had trouble with your Attorney, we got there eventually.")

  3. What precisely was the Prime Minister's brief to Lord Goldsmith? Was he told to produce a dispassionate analysis of the legality of the war or was he, as widely suspected, instructed to provide the best case for war?

  4. Who actually saw the Attorney General's advice of 7 March? It is believed the only cabinet ministers to be copied in to the memo were Tony Blair, Jack Straw and Geoff Hoon. By not circulating the document to the entire Cabinet has not the Ministerial Code been breached? Why did the Cabinet Secretary not insist it was circulated at the Cabinet meeting of 17 March?

  5. When Lord Goldsmith reported to the Cabinet on 17 March, what papers were circulated and what discussions followed? Is Clare Short right to allege that no questions or debate were allowed?

  6. We know Lord Goldsmith said the Government would need "hard evidence" that Saddam was failing to comply with weapons inspectors. Yet on 7 March Hans Blix, the United Nations chief weapons inspector, said Iraq was improving co-operation. How does this square with the hardening of Lord Goldsmith's advice?
29 April 2005 09:09