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No 10 did not summarise Iraq advice, says Goldsmith

Sarah Left, Matthew Tempest and agencies
Friday February 25, 2005

The attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, this evening forcefully rejected accusations that Downing Street had drafted a parliamentary answer summarising his advice to the government on the legality of the Iraq war.

In a written statement, he rejected claims that the answer of March 17 last year had been drafted in No 10 by Lord Falconer of Thoroton, then a Home Office minister, and Baroness Morgan, the prime minister's director of political relations. He said that the answer had been prepared in his own office with the involvement of the solicitor general, Harriet Harman, two of his own officials, three Foreign Office officials and a QC, Christopher Greenwood. The then lord chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, was also consulted.

"I was fully involved throughout the drafting process and personally finalised, and of course approved, the answer," he said. "No other minister or official was involved in any way."

His comments come after the Guardian, drawing on transcripts of Lord Goldsmith's private evidence to the Butler inquiry into the run-up to the war, suggested that he warned Mr Blair less than two weeks before the March 2003 invasion that military action could be deemed illegal. However, he then met the lord chancellor, Lord Falconer, and Baroness Morgan, in 10 Downing Street on March 13. Lord Goldsmith reportedly told Lord Butler that in the March 17 statement "they shortly set out my view".

Lord Goldsmith tonight repeated previous denials that the statement did not accurately reflect his full advice.

"As I have always made clear, I set out in the answer my own genuinely held, independent view that military action was lawful under the existing Security Council resolutions," he said. "The answer did not purport to be a summary of my confidential legal advice to government."

Earlier today Tony Blair angrily rejected repeated calls for the government's legal advice on the Iraq war to be published in full, after a member of Lord Butler's inquiry broke ranks to demand the document now be aired.

Michael Mates, the Tory member of the inquiry that looked into intelligence failures before the war, said it was now "incumbent" on Mr Blair to make public the legal advice from Lord Goldsmith.

But at his monthly press conference in Downing Street this morning, a seemingly testy Mr Blair dismissed suggestions he should reveal the documents and also rejected the argument that the government had now set a precedent by releasing Lord Falconer's legal advice on the status of Prince Charles's wedding.

He told reporters: "Firstly, we haven't broken the precedent, and, secondly, Peter Goldsmith has made his statement and I have got absolutely nothing to add to it.

"He has been over these questions literally scores of times and the position has not changed."

Asked whether a March 17 parliamentary statement presented by ministers as Lord Goldsmith's legal "opinion" truly reflected the attorney general's views, Mr Blair responded: "That's what he said and that's what I say. He has dealt with this time and time and time again."

When a journalist attempted to pursue the line of questioning, Mr Blair snapped: "I've answered your question, that's enough."

Mr Mates told BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning: "[Confidentiality] is not an absolute rule. We discovered that there were two or three occasions in the past when law officers' advice to the government has been published.

"And this may be one of those special occasions, as some people are pressing, when it would be in the public interest to see the advice which the attorney general gave to the prime minister, which was the basis upon which the prime minister decided we were going to go into Iraq."

Mr Mates said the government's arguments for confidentiality were undermined by its own actions over the prince's wedding.

"If no wrong was done over this bit of advice [the Iraq advice] either ... then I believe it is incumbent upon the government to again make an exception and publish that advice."

Mr Mates said, in addition: "What I do think is remarkable is that of the 23 or 24 meetings of the cabinet between September 2002 and January 2003 at which Iraq was on the agenda, the attorney general was only present at two.

"That seems to me to be quite extraordinary, because they were all asking about the legality of the advice, and the government's legal adviser simply wasn't there."

The former international development secretary Clare Short last night demanded a parliamentary investigation into the advice, following the Guardian's reports that the summary presented to parliament may not actually have been written by the attorney general himself. Ms Short - who quit the cabinet after the Iraq war - last night told the BBC: "It says in the ministerial code that if any advice from the law officers is summarised when it comes to cabinet the full advice should be attached.

"My view is we need the House of Lords to set up a special committee, summon the attorney, get all the papers out, look at exactly what happened."