MPs demand the truth on Jack Straw's 'war wobble'

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Indy Politics

Labour and Tory MPs have demanded that Jack Straw answer allegations that he had a last-minute "wobble" on the eve of the Iraq war.

The Foreign Secretary was urged to make a statement on a new book, which claims he sent a memo to Tony Blair suggesting that Britain should not join combat operations but instead offer the United States "political and moral" support.

Downing Street insisted yesterday that Mr Straw's memo was merely a contingency plan in case Mr Blair lost a critical Commons vote on military action on 18 March. Mr Straw has not commented, and yesterday MPs urged him to make a Commons statement. The Speaker, Michael Martin, refused to intervene.

Labour's Tam Dalyell, the longest-serving MP, said: "When as grave charges as these are laid, don't ministers owe it to the House to say one thing or the other, whether it is true or false? It's deeply unsatisfactory that such grave charges are left in limbo."

Later Mr Dalyell added: "If it is true that the Foreign Secretary had these doubts, it is inconceivable, had he mentioned them, that the Commons would have voted to go to war. He has got to clarify this. Is he distancing himself from the Prime Minister's decision or not?"

Michael Ancram, the deputy leader of the Conservative Party, told MPs there was an "irreconcilable contradiction" between Mr Straw's minute on 17 March and his speech to the Commons the following day, when he said: "I am as certain as I can be that the Government's course of action is right."

Mr Ancram said Mr Straw should clear up which statement accurately reflected his view. In a letter sent last night, Mr Ancram told Mr Straw: "As you have not seen fit to come to the House to explain the reasons for this apparent contradiction, I am now writing to ask you to publish the full terms of your personal minute so that the British people can come to their own decisions."

The allegations shocked Labour MPs. Some speculated that allies of Mr Straw were trying to distance him from Mr Blair to boost his prospects in a future leadership contest. Others believed that Mr Straw was not opposing the war but urging Mr Blair to pause briefly before "taking the plunge".

But Mr Blair's official spokesman insisted: "The Foreign Secretary remains as convinced today as he was when the decision was taken that military action was thoroughly justified. I don't think people should be surprised if thought was being given in different parts of Government to fallback options that might follow a negative vote in the Commons - but that's entirely different to having reservations about the policy."

John Kampfner, the journalist who makes the claim in a new book, Blair's Wars, said yesterday that Mr Straw was worried about the timing and tactics. "I believe Straw's appeal was principled. Once his request was rejected, he believed he had no choice but to fall into line," he said.

Mr Kampfner stood by his claim, saying his book was based on interviews with 40 players from all government departments, including No 10 and the Foreign Office.