Another body blow hits the questionable case for conflict

Click to follow

Tony Blair appears to be sinking deeper and deeper into a hole of his own making over the legal case for war in Iraq.

Tony Blair appears to be sinking deeper and deeper into a hole of his own making over the legal case for war in Iraq.

Yesterday's admission by the Cabinet Secretary that there was no formal legal opinion by the Attorney General beyond his one-page written parliamentary answer is remarkable. It provides further evidence that corners were cut in the rush to war, and is bound to fuel criticism that the advice of the most senior law officer was manipulated for political reasons.

There has been a long campaign for Lord Goldsmith's advice to be published. The Independent was among those who asked for it to be released in a test of the Freedom of Information Act, which took effect in January. The Government blocked the request, which may now go to the Information Commissioner. But it did not say until yesterday that no formal legal opinion was written on the eve of the war. A 13-page preliminary assessment by Lord Goldsmith 10 days earlier stopped short of giving approval, saying it would be safer to secure a second UN resolution.

Lord Butler, who conducted an inquiry into events leading to the Iraq war, says in his report that, before giving approval for military action on 17 March 2003, the Attorney General sought an "unequivocal" statement from Mr Blair that Saddam Hussein had committed further breaches of UN resolutions. On 15 March, Mr Blair wrote to Lord Goldsmith confirming that it was his "unequivocal view that Iraq is in further material breach of its obligations" because of false statements or omissions in declarations it submitted and its failure to comply fully with UN resolution 1441.

Some MPs believe Mr Blair was in no position to give that assurance. One said: "The Butler report shows the JIC had provided no further judgement on this after December 2002. So Blair was in no position to do so. Again, he has distorted the work of the intelligence services ... Otherwise, the Attorney General could not have declared any war legal."

The Government is spinning contradictory lines as the hole deepens. The Attorney General has both said that that his written parliamentary statement was a summary of his opinion and also denied that it was such a summary.

Mr Blair is looking increasingly isolated in his refusal to publish Lord Goldsmith's preliminary opinion of 7 March. Michael Howard has promised to reveal it if the Tories win the election. And Gordon Brown would disclose the legal advice ahead of future military action under a plan to restore people's trust in politicians.