Ministers fear the inquiry into the Iraq war will create a new public backlash that will harm the Labour Party's prospects at the general election.
Although Sir John Chilcot's investigation will not report until after the election, alarm bells are ringing in the Government that the evidence sessions, which began last week, will remind voters about the war and further undermine public trust in Labour.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq is widely seen as "Blair's war", and the former Prime Minister's evidence in the new year is expected to be the climax of the public hearings. Gordon Brown, who was then Chancellor, kept a relatively low profile over the conflict, but there are growing fears in Labour circles that he will pay a political price.
Labour strategists fear the pre-election hearings will boost the performance of the Liberal Democrats on polling day. They were the only one of the three main parties to oppose the war. "People are starting to wonder whether Gordon has done the right thing by allowing all this to come out before the election," one minister said. "Some voters who could not bring themselves to vote for us in 2005 because of Iraq might have been tempted back into the fold next year to stop the Tories winning. But now they are getting a daily reminder of why they turned against us."
Mr Brown is said to have allowed the inquiry to go ahead because he had made a firm commitment to Labour MPs who opposed the war. Initially, the Prime Minister hoped that the Chilcot hearings would be heard in private, but he was forced to back down.
Mr Brown came under new pressure yesterday to relax the rules under which Whitehall can block Sir John's inquiry publishing official documents during its investigation and in its final report.
There were calls for the immediate publication of the legal advice on the invasion, after new claims that Lord Goldsmith, when he was Attorney General, told Mr Blair eight months before the conflict that it was illegal under international law to depose Saddam Hussein. His July 2002 letter is believed to have been submitted to the Chilcot inquiry, and both Mr Blair and Lord Goldsmith are likely to be asked about it.
As the Government's top legal adviser, he is said to have told Mr Blair that war could not be justified on grounds of "regime change", or humanitarian relief in Iraq, or "self-defence" because Britain was not under threat, and that it would be very hard to rely on earlier UN resolutions.
According to one report yesterday, the letter caused pandemonium in Downing Street. Lord Goldsmith was said to have been "more or less pinned to the wall" by two Blair loyalists, Lord Falconer and Baroness Morgan of Huyton, as they pressed him to change his mind. They have denied the claim. The report claimed that Lord Goldsmith considered resigning, but in the end gave qualified legal backing for military action days before the invasion.
His spokesman said yesterday: "Lord Goldsmith has always maintained the advice he gave that military action would be lawful was his own professional view. He strongly refutes the suggestion he might have been forced to take a view that was anything other than independent."Reuse content