Tony Blair sidelined senior ministers in the run-up to the Iraq war because he feared they would leak details of talks about military action, the Cabinet Secretary said yesterday.
Sir Gus O'Donnell took a series of swipes at the former Prime Minister's style of government, telling the Chilcot inquiry that Mr Blair did not feel the Cabinet was a "safe space" to discuss moves to war. Britain's most senior civil servant also argued that ministers should have been given full legal advice about the invasion and that more detailed records of crucial meetings should have been kept.
He said key decisions were taken by Mr Blair's inner circle because he did not trust other colleagues to keep the discussions confidential.
"That is one of the reasons why the Prime Minister was reluctant at times to take as many Cabinet decisions as possible. He felt they would become very public very quickly," Sir Gus said. "Why would he not go for these meetings? I think because he would have thought it wasn't a safe space."
Sir Gus was asked about Mr Blair's failure to circulate the full advice from Lord Goldsmith, the former Attorney General, to the Cabinet before it approved the invasion. He replied: "The ministerial code makes it clear that if there is a legal issue, the full text of the Attorney General's opinion should be attached [to Cabinet papers]."
Sir Gus, who became Cabinet Secretary two years after the war, said prime ministers should assemble cabinets "where you build trust amongst people" and which had "regular frequent meetings with a clear structure and a clear set of papers". He acknowledged that the relatively informal approach to governing under Mr Blair was hampering the Chilcot team.
"If you reduce the formality you do not have such good records. When you come to do an audit – as you are here – it is not as complete as any Cabinet Secretary would want it to be."
Sir Gus was not challenged by the panel about his decision to block the publication of secret messages Mr Blair sent to President George W Bush ahead of the war. The inquiry's chairman, Sir John Chilcot, began the three-hour evidence session by saying it was outside his remit to ask questions on the subject.
Sir Gus also said he was reviewing Downing Street's handling of intelligence material.