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Try the truth next time, Tony

Simon Jenkins

The Attorney-General has been a convenient figure to hide behind but his position is now untenable

TONY BLAIR does not just grasp at straws. He claws at them with passion, kisses them all over and cries their beauty to the world. Yesterday the Attorney-General was such a straw and by close of play was looking the worse for wear. If he had wanted to share any caveats about the Iraq war with the British people, Mr Blair was able to imply, he was free to do so. He attended Cabinet. He sits in Parliament. He said the war was fine.
The fact is that the Attorney-General played John Mitchell to Mr Blair’s Nixon. He took the master’s shilling and paid the price. He was given the same treatment that Mr Blair meted out last year to John Scarlett of MI6. There was nothing dodgy about the decision to go to war with Iraq, said Mr Blair, because his advisers said so. If Lord Goldsmith changed his mind — Mr Blair will not concede even that — that was his business.

Yesterday the torpid 2005 election campaign had an adrenalin rush. Democracy grabbed power by the throat, shook it hard and demanded explanation. The errors in the invasion of Iraq may be history, but mendacity is not mitigated by time. It craves atonement. The Tories were unwise to call Mr Blair a liar so prominently — they propagated the same lies — but a prime minister suffering a veracity shortfall is fair game at an election. Imagine if Mr Blair were Opposition leader just now.

The recently published advice from the Attorney-General confirms what most people suspected. Mr Blair could not have won Cabinet and parliamentary support for the war in March 2003 without two crucial pieces of publicisable information. One was that Saddam posed an “imminent” threat, the other that an invasion not backed by the UN was still legal. When he read Lord Goldsmith’s March 7 opinion, which was unequivocally hostile to the war, he knew it had to be changed. The crusader was armoured, mounted and half way to Jerusalem. He needed a blessing not a permit from the Mother Church that is the law. Since its vicar on earth was Lord Goldsmith, a man whom he had preferred and ennobled, he duly got what he wanted.

His lordship was in dire straits over Iraq in the spring of 2003. Mr Blair had declared on November 8 that resolution 1441 was “not an automatic trigger point” for war. The resolution’s paragraph 12 made that clear. There would have to be a return to the UN, “as we always said there would be”. When Lord Goldsmith prepared his March 7 advice, he recklessly took Mr Blair’s word for truth. He said that without such a return to the UN for another resolution, the war would probably be illegal. The “unreasonableness” of any French veto on such a second UN resolution would make no difference to that illegality. Only “strong factual grounds” for a change in circumstance would alter that view.

With the defence chiefs and the Parliamentary Labour Party screaming for a more favourable opinion, Downing Street did what it had to do. It lent on Lord Goldsmith. He appears to have resisted, demanding a written statement from Mr Blair that Saddam was in “material breach” of UN resolutions. This was ostensibly another sign of legal nervousness. Downing Street and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office went to work. They combed the latest report from Hans Blix like the Inquisition combing Galileo’s writings for the slightest apostasy. Lord Goldsmith was given an escape from the trap he had set himself. He judged that circumstances had changed. His statement to Parliament on March 17, unsupported by any documentation, was brief. His previous opinion was suppressed.

When asked if any of Lord Goldsmith’s earlier caveats were presented to the Cabinet or Parliament, Mr Blair, Jack Straw and Gordon Brown all said yesterday that there was no point. Lord Goldsmith had spoken in person. It was for him to mention caveats and he did not. The Attorney-General was thus totally set up. Even to mention caveats would have been to open a ministerial Pandora’s box. His advice could be called “clear and unequivocal”. This was plainly a lie by sin of omission, and the omission was Lord Goldsmith’s. It let Mr Blair briefly off the hook.

The Attorney-General’s position must now be untenable. He may have been a dab hand at the commercial bar, but he accepted high office in a democracy. He should not be pleading the Fifth Amendment like a mafioso not wanting to incriminate himself. An attorney-general is a politician, a minister and member, albeit unelected, of Parliament. He cannot refuse to answer for his actions or retreat behind legal independence when muck hits the fan.

The lesson left by this bizarre affair is that democracies go to war in glory but reflect in anger. Lord Goldsmith, like the whole British Cabinet that third week of March, was in a state of self-denial. It did not want to know if what it was doing was wrong. As the historian Barbara Tuchman remarked, at such times members of a regime rarely cross-examine advice or analyse their options. They bury their heads and blindly follow their leader, knowing that at least he will take the rap. Mr Blair is right. On this one occasion, the Cabinet did have a chance to question war policy. It funked it. Small wonder the Prime Minister ignores it.

Mr Blair would have saved himself a mountain of trouble if, with hindsight, he had only admitted his faults and deceptions on Iraq, as in part George Bush has done. He could have confessed that the intelligence was wrongly stiffened and the legal advice equivocal. He could have said publicly what he did privately, that this war had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein and everything to do with not leaving America friendless and isolated. He could then have asked the public please to “move on” and help to clear up the mess. Instead of twisting and spinning and dumping on others, he should have just told the truth.