Clare Short: How Cherie Blair helped convince me war was legal

Clare Short vowed to resign from the Cabinet if Britain and the US invaded Iraq - but shocked her supporters by staying on instead. This exclusive extract from her new book explains why she was persuaded not to go - and reveals how even the Prime Minister's wife was part of the campaign to justify the conflict
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When the prospect of invading Iraq began to be discussed in early 2002, I was clear from the very start about my role. I should follow events closely, read the intelligence, argue the case in Cabinet and indicate my views in public if necessary. I understood how much was at stake and was clear that I couldn't remain a member of the government if we simply supported Bush's aggression against Iraq without the support of the UN. But I was hopeful that the Labour Party would be able to keep Tony Blair on the straight and narrow.

When the prospect of invading Iraq began to be discussed in early 2002, I was clear from the very start about my role. I should follow events closely, read the intelligence, argue the case in Cabinet and indicate my views in public if necessary. I understood how much was at stake and was clear that I couldn't remain a member of the government if we simply supported Bush's aggression against Iraq without the support of the UN. But I was hopeful that the Labour Party would be able to keep Tony Blair on the straight and narrow.

In November Security Council Resolution 1441 was passed. This was achieved by the usual process of repeatedly amended drafts in order to build consensus. The resolution is not formally tabled until agreement has been built up. In the light of later claims that 1441 gave authority for war, it is worth noting the formal speech setting out the UK position that our Ambassador Sir Jeremy Greenstock read out to the Security Council. He said that the fact that the Resolution had unanimous support sent a powerful signal to Iraq and created a chance that Iraq would finally comply with its obligations and that military action could be averted. He went on to say: "We heard loud and clear during the negotiations the concerns about 'automaticity' and 'hidden triggers' - the concern that on a decision so crucial we should not rush into military action; that on a decision so crucial any Iraqi violations should be discussed by the Council. Let me be equally clear in response, as a co-sponsor with the United States of the text we have adopted. There is no 'automaticity' in this Resolution. If there is a further Iraqi breach of its disarmament obligations, the matter will return to the Council for discussion as required in Operational Paragraph 12."

This speech is very important and was an on-the-record statement of the UK government position. There had been tension in the drafting of the resolution over whether it would give Iraq a last chance to disarm and if it failed the issue would come back to the Security Council, or whether the resolution would give the US authority to declare war if they judged Iraq had not complied. This is what automaticity meant. The US had wanted a resolution giving them authority to declare war if they saw fit. The rest of the Security Council did not want this. This is why it took nearly two months to reach agreement on the resolution. Jeremy Greenstock's statement was therefore very important. He made a promise on behalf of the UK in that statement which was later broken when Blair decided that he had legal authority for war without another resolution. The point was later fudged by the claim that the issue went back to the Security Council for discussion, but that is not a fulfilment of the promise "there is no 'automaticity' in this resolution".

My diary entry for 10 November is:

... I asked for assurance - we would not go alone with US v Iraq, outside UN and if not Cabinet discussion before decision made. TB spoke in friendly tone, said didn't want to be tied to an assurance as such but promised constant discussion. Said we are on tightrope trying to keep with UN ... if we were likely to fall off "you" (pointing at me) will be first to know.

Next Cabinet - I asked what exactly our bottom line for Security Council was. TB said if inspectors blocked, would go back to Security Council. Problem was if need force to back up UN but likely veto. (Can't always be sure TB doesn't say what one wants to hear but this is full Cab with a note taken and tone is friendly and careful).

Blair repeatedly qualified his promise that we would return to the UN if inspection failed with the proviso that this would happen unless there was an unreasonable veto. He said this in Parliament as well as in Cabinet. This was clearly designed to give him what has come to be known as "wriggle room". In the run-up to war, Blair repeatedly promised his party, Cabinet and country that we would go back to the UN for a second resolution if it was to come to war. He did not keep this promise (and he used his wriggle room to blame the French in a way that was deeply misleading).

In February 2003, I visited No 10 with a delegation of representatives of US churches, who wanted to propose a last- minute peace plan.It was interesting to watch Blair at work. He was totally charming, appeared to listen and agree with all that was said. But he made no firm promises.

I was growing ever more concerned and decided to do something I had never done before. I rang Cherie, who agreed to see me, and gave her a copy of my letter to Blair about international law on reconstruction and the need for a UN mandate.

My diary records:

I said "Tony should reposition, give more time for the Blix process, respect UN authority, talk to Kofi, get him to help with France, Germany and Russia, calm things down and confirm a UN mandate for rebuilding."

Cherie gave me a cup of tea and was very friendly but firmly assured me that Tony would not contemplate breaking international law. I was left with the impression that Cherie was involved in discussion of the issues and very supportive of Tony.

Tony asked to see me before Cabinet, and said Cherie had told him about our meeting.

My diary records:

He is very friendly ... I tell him need to reposition and must have UN mandate. He asks if I have stopped my department from preparing. I explain Geneva Convention duties on army. UN humanitarian engagement needs mandate for reconstruction. DfID are preparing for all eventualities but I won't ask department to do illegal things. He seems to be listening and friendly but that is his style.

After the Cabinet meeting my diary records:

TB says trying to get UN support. R Cook says need more respect for UN. I say regret we couldn't use our leverage to get publication of Road Map. Arm-twisting members of Security Council looks bad and diminishes the UN. Can't we let Blix process have integrity. Have to have UN mandate for reconstruction, otherwise occupied territory.

TB says in meeting with me, he may go to see Bush. I say not Bush again. He says only way he can get him to listen. I say if you do, please go and see Kofi as well. He says yes, may also go to see Chilean President and Putin. I say if it looks like more arm-twisting, won't look good.

My entry goes on

I heard from two senior officials in DfID that it is rumoured that Attorney General has said 1441 may not give authority for war and he would resign. Also military would not go if legal authority not clear.

On Monday, 17 March, the special Cabinet with the Attorney-General was held. We were told Robin had resigned and Peter Goldsmith sat in Robin's seat. Two pieces of paper were sitting on the table before each of our places. This was later published as a parliamentary answer. The Attorney started to read the statement. We murmured that there was no need to read it aloud and he stopped. I tried to start a discussion and asked why it was so late, had he had doubts? The Cabinet was impatient with me. They didn't want such a discussion. His advice was that war was legal under 1441 and that was it.

One day we will know how the Attorney came to be persuaded that there was legal authority for war. One of the Foreign Office's long-standing legal advisers had said there was no authority for war and later resigned. A prestigious group of international lawyers had written to The Guardian on 7 March and said 1441 did not give authority for war. War would be a breach of the UN Charter without explicit Security Council authority. There were rumours across Whitehall that the Attorney thought there was no legal authority and was planning to resign. The military made it clear that, without the Attorney's approval, they would not go. Then we got a short opinion saying there was no problem and no discussion. There has been pressure for his full opinion to be published but nothing longer was circulated in Whitehall. There has also been pressure for his instructions to be published. What were the assumptions about the likely use of WMD, for example? The Butler Report provided new evidence on this. It is clear that the Attorney had given Blair earlier advice which had not been shared in Whitehall. This was Blair's informal style being allowed to change the way that Whitehall works. For example, notes of phone calls with foreign leaders were always circulated. This happened with his early calls with Bush, and then notes ceased to be circulated. The tension was considerable across Whitehall on the question of legality, yet no note of the Prime Minister's meeting with the Attorney was made available. This was a considerable change in Whitehall practice. Blair controlled the Iraq policy personally and very informally and normal information-sharing systems were closed down.

For me, this was a significant moment. Up until 17 March there was no legal authority for war. The process leading up to the Attorney's opinion was fishy, but in the British system, for the civil service and military, it is the Attorney's advice that is sacrosanct. Officials in DfID had been very concerned about legality and I felt very protective of them. I was very surprised by the Attorney's advice, but then I accepted it. But looking back it is difficult not to believe he was leant on. He was appointed to the Lords and to his office by Blair and it was clear when I went to see Cherie that there had been discussion on legality. I did ask him later why he had delayed, did he have any doubt? He just said he was slow. The later rumour was that he went shopping to find the one UK international lawyer who would say 1441 gave authority for war.

Abridged extract from 'An Honourable Deception?' (Simon & Schuster, 2004) published on 1 November, price £15 © Clare Short 2004