Ex-civil servants dispute Blair's Iraq war claim

Two former heads of the civil service today disputed Tony Blair's claim that the Cabinet knew military action against Iraq was likely a year before the war began.

The ex-prime minister told the Chilcot Inquiry into the conflict on Friday that his ministers realised from early 2002 that the Government had embarked on a policy that would probably lead to an attack on the Middle Eastern country.

But former cabinet secretary Lord Wilson of Dinton said today Mr Blair assured his colleagues "nothing was imminent" at a Cabinet meeting in April 2002.

He told the inquiry: "I don't think anyone would have gone away thinking they had authorised a course of action that would lead to military action."

And his successor, Lord Turnbull, said Mr Blair kept putting off a Cabinet discussion about the possibility of attacking Iraq in the months before the March 2003 invasion.

He said: "The prime minister basically said, 'well, they (his ministers) knew the score'. That isn't borne out by what actually happened."

Mr Blair was asked by the inquiry panel on Friday whether he felt he had a "clear Cabinet mandate" in mid-2002 to pursue a policy on Iraq that would probably lead Britain to war.

He replied: "I honestly don't think you could have a Cabinet minister around that table who would say, 'oh my goodness, I didn't know we were saying Saddam (Hussein) had to comply with the UN inspectors or we were going to take military action'.

"I mean, I was saying it. At every Prime Minister's Questions I was being asked it."

However, Lord Wilson, cabinet secretary from 1998 to 2002, said there was only one Cabinet meeting "of substance" about Iraq in this period.

This meeting, on March 7 2002, lasted just over an hour and included questions from ministers on a wide range of issues, including the legal position, what military action might involve and the importance of the UN being involved.

Lord Wilson quoted then-Commons leader Robin Cook's comment that this was "a momentous event, a real discussion at Cabinet" and then-Downing Street communications chief Alastair Campbell's assessment that the ministers were "not quite divided but concerned".

Possible military action against Iraq was only discussed in terms of a bombing campaign, not the full ground invasion launched by the US and the UK in March 2003, the inquiry heard.

Lord Wilson said: "The prime minister finished the meeting by saying, 'the concerns expressed are justified - the management hasn't gone crazy'.

"Those are not the words of a man who has had authority to proceed on a course that is likely to lead to military action."

He added: "They weren't talking about military action, and indeed the whole flavour of it was, 'any decisions on this are a long way away'."

The question of Iraq was discussed again in less detail at a Cabinet meeting on April 11 2002, the inquiry heard.

Mr Blair reassured his ministers that "nothing was imminent" and he was using his influence to nudge the Americans down the route of tackling Saddam through the United Nations.

Lord Wilson said: "I don't think anyone would have gone away thinking they had authorised a course of action that would lead to military action."

The ex-cabinet secretary said Mr Blair was "probably one of the most powerful prime ministers we've ever had" because his Cabinet "allowed him to be extremely strong".

He added: "A lot of what we're talking about is really about the concentration of power, where the power was in the Government.

"Mr Blair was extremely strong in Parliament, in public opinion, in the trade union movement, in the Labour Party and in his Cabinet - with the exception of Gordon Brown."

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