A controversy that still damages Blair

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Whenever Tony Blair thinks Iraq is fading as an issue, it returns. With each new act of insurgency in Iraq or renewed question about the way he took Britain to war, the shadow returns.

Whenever Tony Blair thinks Iraq is fading as an issue, it returns. With each new act of insurgency in Iraq or renewed question about the way he took Britain to war, the shadow returns.

After the elections in Iraq in January there was cautious optimism among Mr Blair's allies that democracy could spread through the Middle East, but the picture has been clouded by continuing problems in Iraq and by renewed doubts about the legality of the war.

Philippe Sands, a QC in Cherie Blair's Matrix Chambers and professor of international law at University College London, last month published a book shining fresh light on the legal advice given to Mr Blair in the run-up to war by Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General. On 7 March 2003, Lord Goldsmith warned that the use of force might be judged illegal without a second United Nations resolution approving military action, Professor Sands wrote. By 13 March, he had changed his mind.

What happened in between? Lord Goldsmith denies claims that he was "leant on". But Lord Butler's inquiry last July disclosed that he sought, and was given, an assurance by Mr Blair that Saddam Hussein was still in breach of existing United Nations resolutions. Not all of Professor Sands' allegations stood up. He suggested that the Attorney General's parliamentary statement endorsing the use of force - a crucial factor in persuading Cabinet ministers and MPs to back the war - was drafted by two close Blair allies, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, then a Home Office minister, and Baroness Morgan of Huyton, the Downing Street director of external relations.

Lord Goldsmith dampened down this allegation, which appears to have been based on an erroneous transcript from the evidence he gave in private to the Butler committee.

But doubts remain about the legal authority for war, not least because the Government has doggedly refused to publish the full 13-page document submitted by Lord Goldsmith on 7 March. Ministers take refuge in the long-standing tradition that the law officers' opinion should remain confidential. They rejected a request by The Independent and others for the advice to be released under the new Freedom of Information Act, arguing that disclosure could prevent the Attorney General giving frank advice to the Government in future.

Doubts persist that the 7 March document may have contained damaging caveats. Certainly, opinion among government lawyers was divided. Elizabeth Wilmshurst, deputy legal adviser at the Foreign Office, resigned, attacking the planned intervention in Iraq as a "crime of aggression".

Lord Goldsmith has also been criticised for relying on an expert opinion from Christopher Greenwood QC, professor of international law at the London School of Economics. Critics say he was among a minority in his field to endorse the invasion.

Today The Independent discloses yet another twist in the tale. The 7 March document, sent to Mr Blair, is believed to have been seen by only a small number of ministers, including the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and the Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, whose service chiefs were demanding a legal green light. Crucially, the cabinet meeting on 17 March was given only the two-page parliamentary statement by Lord Goldsmith. After written questions by MPs it emerged yesterday that, under the ministers' code of conduct, the Cabinet should have seen the Attorney General's full advice as well as his summary.

The evasions and the contradictions do not end there. The Government may try to wriggle off the hook by claiming Lord Goldsmith's statement to Parliament was not a summary of his legal advice. He said on 25 February this year: "The [parliamentary] answer did not purport to be a summary of my confidential legal advice to government."

Yet in November 2003, the Attorney General said in another written answer: "This statement was a summary of my view of the legal position, rather than a detailed consideration of the legal issues. The statement was nevertheless consistent with my detailed legal advice."

The "Iraq effect" is still there on the doorstep, Labour officials report from the election front line. The issue is wider than the military intervention, with some voters expressing concern they have "lost" their Prime Minister to foreign affairs and others seeing "Iraq" as shorthand for their loss of trust in Mr Blair. The real "Iraq effect" will be measured on 5 May.