Goldsmith misled cabinet on Iraq says Short
Backing for military action 'obtained improperly'Richard Norton-Taylor and David Pallister
Thursday March 10, 2005
The crisis over the attorney general's conduct deepened yesterday when a former colleague accused him of misleading the cabinet about the legality of the invasion of Iraq.
Lord Goldsmith came under added pressure to explain his position when the prime minister contradicted his account of a parliamentary answer used by ministers to make the case for war.
Tony Blair told MPs that the cabinet did not need a full text of the attorney's legal advice - as required by the ministerial code of conduct - as Lord Goldsmith had explained it in an oral presentation.
In response to a question from the Plaid Cymru leader, Elfyn Llwyd, Mr Blair told MPs: "The attorney general came to the cabinet and gave his opinion in detail and was there able to answer any queries that people raised about it."
He added: "If it is being said that somehow the legal opinion of the attorney general is different from the attorney general's statement to this house that is patently absurd."
This contradicts statements by Lord Goldsmith, who has gone out of his way to insist that his parliamentary answer on 17 March 2003 on the legality of the war did not reflect his legal advice and was not even a summary of it.
Lord Goldsmith said in response to the Guardian last month that the parliamentary answer "did not purport to be a summary of my confidential legal advice to government".
The answer said it was "plain" that Iraq was still in breach of its UN disarmament obligations.
Yesterday Clare Short, a member of the cabinet at the time, accused Lord Goldsmith of misleading his government colleagues.
Mr Blair also misled MPs by saying the cabinet was able to ask Lord Goldsmith questions about his legal advice, she said.
In a letter to Lord Goldsmith, Ms Short said that at the March 17 cabinet meeting she had tried to initiate a discussion. But she claimed that she was told not to ask such questions "and no discussion was allowed".
She accused the attorney general of breaching the ministerial code by not giving the cabinet the full version of what is now believed to be his last official written legal advice on the war on March 7 2003.
This 13-page document, never published, is widely understood to have warned Mr Blair that British participation in the war against Iraq could be ruled unlawful by an international court.
The ministerial code states that "when advice from the law officers is included in correspondence between ministers ... the conclusions may if necessary be summarised but, if this is done, the complete text of the advice should be attached".
Ms Short said yesterday that Lord Goldsmith had failed to share his concern about the legality of the war with the full cabinet or tell it why, and how, he had changed his mind.
She told the attorney general: "I am afraid that it is now clear to me that by failing to reveal your full legal advice and the considerations that underpinned your final advice you misled the cabinet and therefore helped to obtain support for military action improperly."
That was a very serious matter, she told Lord Goldsmith, in relation to the "integrity of your office, your own integrity and the proper working of UK constitutional arrangements".
The attorney general's advice on the legality of the war is to come under separate scrutiny, as a group of London lawyers has called on the Bar Council to investigate whether he has broken the profession's code of conduct.
In a letter to the council's professional conduct and complaints committee, barristers from at least four chambers say that if as suggested Lord Goldsmith was politically influenced to amend his advice this may have contravened two sections of the code which deal with barristers' independence.
The lawyers add: "It is further suggested that [the attorney general] permitted a parliamentary answer to be given, in his name, which did not accurately reflect the contents of his advice."
The government has until tomorrow to respond to a Guardian request under the Freedom of Information Act to publish the attorney general's full legal advice on the war and the resignation letter of the deputy chief legal adviser at the Foreign Office, Elizabeth Wilmshurst.
If it refuses to respond the information commissioner, Richard Thomas, will conduct an independent review and has the power to order their release.