When Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, arrived at the all-important cabinet meeting convened to approve war on Iraq in March, there was one vacant seat at the coffin-shaped table.
Robin Cook, who was Leader of the Commons, had told Tony Blair minutes earlier that he was quitting the Government in protest at the impending conflict.
Lord Goldsmith sat down in Mr Cook's normal place and proceeded to distribute to the assembled ministers two pages of A4 paper on which the legal case for military action was based.
Clare Short, who later resigned from her post as International Development Secretary, was puzzled by the brevity of the Attorney's General's opinion.
She told The Independent yesterday: "I tried to discuss his advice with the Cabinet, but they said, 'Oh, shut up Clare'. It was obvious to me that something mysterious had gone on. There had clearly been some shenanigans going on."
Many of Ms Short's own officials, as well as those in the Ministry of Defence, had desperately wanted reassurance that their actions would be given legal cover in the event of a war. The two pages of A4 paper appeared to provide ministers with enough reassurance for them to proceed. Even so, many in Whitehall had been seriously worried about strong and persistent rumours that some in the Foreign Office legal team were arguing that war without a second UN resolution would have be unlawful.
Their fears were to be realised the week after the eve-of-war cabinet meeting, when Elizabeth Wilmhurst, the deputy legal adviser at the Foreign Office, resigned. Ms Wilmhurst was understood to have disagreed with those arguing that international law covered the action.
The truncated version of the Attorney General's advice - just 358 words - relied mainly on UN resolutions passed at the time of the 1990-91 Gulf War. Resolution 678 authorised force to eject Iraq from Kuwait and restore peace in the area. Resolution 687 imposed ceasefire conditions, including pledges not to produce WMD. Any breach would revive the earlier authority for war. But many legal experts pointed out that relying heavily on a 14-year-old UN resolution would not meet normal standards of international law.Reuse content