PM condemned over legal advice on Iraq

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Tony Blair was thrown on to the defensive yesterday by a growing row over his failure to show his Cabinet the full legal advice about the Iraq war.

Tony Blair was thrown on to the defensive yesterday by a growing row over his failure to show his Cabinet the full legal advice about the Iraq war.

MPs from all parties accused Mr Blair of trying to "wheedle his way out" of the serious charge of breaking the ministerial code of conduct after he came under pressure at Prime Minister's Questions.

Last night Michael Howard, the Tory leader, pledged that he would publish the legal opinion of the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith if his party won the general election. He told The Independent: "We have consistently called for the Attorney General's full legal advice on the war to be published. If we were in government, it would be our intention, subject only to going through the required procedures, to publish this advice."

Aides said this was a firm pledge. Although he would consult Lord Goldsmith, in line with tradition, the Attorney General would not have a veto.

The longest-serving MP, Tam Dalyell, said the revelation in yesterday's Independent about the Prime Minister's breach of the ministerial code had "opened a can of worms" about the legal basis for war. The code says cabinet ministers should see full legal advice if they are given a summary of it. But on the eve of the war two years ago, ministers were given only a copy of the written answer the Attorney General was to give in Parliament.

Mr Blair insisted that he had not breached the ministerial code because the Attorney General gave an oral rather than written presentation to the Cabinet. He told MPs: "The Attorney General came to the Cabinet and gave his opinion in detail and was there able to answer any queries people raised. If it is being said that somehow the legal opinion of the Attorney General is different from the Attorney General's statement to this House that is patently absurd."

Clare Short, the former cabinet minister, accused Mr Blair of misleading the Commons. She said: "There was no discussion. That is a lie. I tried to initiate a discussion but many voices were calling for me to be quiet and not ask such questions. They didn't permit any discussion and the Attorney General did not say anything other than to start reading out a parliamentary answer. What the Prime Minister said did not happen. Even if it had, it would not have been an excuse about not adhering to the ministerial code."

The Prime Minister now faces questions on whether a full text of the advice existed when the Cabinet was briefed about the legality of invasion. Mr Dalyell said: "This begs the question that there was a written legal opinion at the time. Until now, we had all assumed there was."

Elfyn Llwyd, the parliamentary leader of Plaid Cymru, said the Prime Minister's reply in the Commons was "utter nonsense", adding: "The ministerial code is quite clear; if a summary of the legal advice is given to the Cabinet, the full text must also be attached. There are no get-out clauses for Tony Blair on this occasion and no amount of legal training or spin doctoring will change things."

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said: "The code is explicit and, by the Prime Minister's admission, appears to [have been] breached."

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