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Tories challenge government on war advice

Matthew Tempest, political correspondent
Thursday February 24, 2005

The Conservatives today demanded ministers answer in the Commons allegations that Number 10 drafted legal advice justifying an attack on Iraq.

The opposition's challenge came after the Guardian reported claims from a new book that the summary of the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith's advice on the eve of the war, given to the Lords in a written answer, was in fact put together by Lord Falconer and Baroness Morgan, a Downing Street adviser.

The Tories today demanded that the accusations be rebutted in the Commons, where MPs would have a chance to cross-question them, rather than in statements put out by Downing Street or Lord Goldsmith.

The shadow attorney general, Dominic Grieve, said the allegation that Lord Goldsmith's summary of his advice - the full details of which have still not been released by the government - was written by others, including members of Mr Blair's political staff, was "disturbing and extraordinary".

He said: "The government should move quickly to respond to this assertion in the House of Commons.

"It reinforces what the Conservatives said at the time of the Hutton inquiry, that the government should exceptionally provide the full details of the advice provided by the attorney general."

A showdown in the Commons over the allegation would move the issue of Iraq back up the political agenda in the run-up to the general election campaign.

Downing Street has denied the allegation, made in the book Lawless World by Philippe Sands QC, that a March 17 parliamentary answer from Lord Goldsmith was in fact drafted from within Number 10.

The prime minister's official spokesman rejected the claims, saying: "The attorney general made it clear the words and the judgment were his."

In a statement to Newsnight, Lord Goldsmith said: "In my parliamentary answer on March 17 2003, I explained my genuinely held, independent view, that military action was lawful under the existing security council resolutions.

"It was certainly not a view that I expressed as a result of being leaned on in any way, nor as I have already made clear, was it written by or at Number 10."

The Liberal Democrats - backed by most of Fleet Street - are calling for Lord Goldsmith's actual advice to be published, a move rejected out of hand by the government as breaching confidentiality normally attached to government legal advice.

According to Mr Sands, Lord Goldsmith had warned Tony Blair in a document on March 7 2003 that the use of force against Iraq could be illegal and that it would have been safer to seek a second UN resolution sanctioning military action.

Mr Blair was under pressure from the armed forces at the time to state categorically that an invasion would be legal, to avoid the possibility of UK troops being prosecuted at the international criminal court in The Hague.

The book says that on March 13 Lord Goldsmith met the then Home Office minister Lord Falconer and Downing Street adviser Baroness Morgan.

"After that, Downing Street proceeded to set out his [Lord Goldsmith's] view in a parliamentary answer which was then published on March 17," said Mr Sands.

The Guardian has seen transcripts of exchanges between Lord Goldsmith and Lord Butler, who was then investigating intelligence failures in the lead up to the Iraq war.

On May 5 2004, Lord Goldsmith told Lord Butler: "I conveyed [my] view ... in a meeting on March 13 with Baroness Morgan and Lord Falconer."

Lord Butler: Was that formally minuted?

Lord Goldsmith: I can't say. I do not know what minutes Number 10 may have of it. They shortly, of course, set out my view in a PQ [parliamentary question].

Opposition to the war has retrospectively focused on Lord Goldsmith's advice, with the suspicion that the attorney general was doubtful as to the war's legality without a specific second UN resolution authorising it.

That position has been strengthened by UN secretary general Kofi Annan's subsequent labelling of the invasion as illegal.

The deputy legal adviser at the Foreign Office, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, resigned before the war saying that an attack had no legal legitimacy and would amount to a "crime of aggression".