Straw denies blocking Iraq war Cabinet debate

Former foreign secretary Jack Straw today denied blocking detailed cabinet discussion on the attorney general's advice on the legality of military action against Iraq.

Making his second appearance before the Iraq Inquiry, he insisted he had no recollection of the then-international development secretary Clare Short's claim that she was "jeered" when she tried to question Lord Goldsmith's opinion.

Mr Straw, who is now the Justice Secretary, said that it was "simply untrue" to claim that the system of cabinet government had broken down under Tony Blair's leadership.

He also strongly defended his decision to overrule the advice of the senior Foreign Office legal adviser, Sir Michael, that the use of force would be illegal without a specific mandate from the United Nations.

The inquiry has previously released declassified documents showing how Mr Straw warned Lord Goldsmith not to disclose that the legal arguments were "finely balanced" when he presented his advice to the cabinet on March 17 2003 on the eve of the crucial Commons vote on war.

While Mr Straw acknowledged that he had been concerned about the possibility of leaks if ministers were told, he insisted that they had been fully aware of the issues involved.

He said that there had been an intense public debate whether UN Security Council resolution 1441, passed the previous November, provided sufficient authorisation for the use of force without the need for a second resolution.

"The cabinet were fully aware that the arguments were evenly balanced. It was impossible to open a newspaper without being fully aware of the balance of the arguments," he said.

"No-one was unaware of the fact that there had been and was continuing an intense legal debate about the interpretation of 1441."

He said that the cabinet included a number of "strong-minded people" - among them Gordon Brown, John Prescott, David Blunkett and Charles Clarke - who were all capable of raising any concerns they had.

"These weren't wilting violets, their judgment was that it was not necessary to go into the process by which Peter Goldsmith came to his view," he said.

"There is nothing unusual at all about legal decisions being finely balanced. What the cabinet wanted to know and needed to know was what was the decision.

"Nobody was preventing anybody from asking the attorney - including Clare Short - what the position was. In the event, they chose not to."

He said that he had no recollection of Ms Short being "jeered" and told to be quiet when she tried to raise the issue, as she claimed when she gave evidence last week.

"I don't challenge her recollection but that it is not my recollection. This was a very serious cabinet meeting. People weren't, as I recall, going off with that kind of behaviour. We all understood the gravity of the decision," he said.

Mr Straw said he believed that he had been entitled to reject Sir Michael Wood's advice that military action was illegal without a further Security Council resolution.

He said Sir Michael had given "contradictory" advice - noting in an earlier memorandum that there were two possible views on the legality of military action on the basis of 1441 alone.

"The legal advice he offered, frankly, was contradictory and I think I was entitled to raise that," he said.

Mr Straw acknowledged he was not an international lawyer - as Sir Michael's deputy Elizabeth Wilmshurst had pointed out - but said he believed his close involvement in the negotiations on 1441 meant he was able to take a view.

"Yes, I am not an international lawyer but I was able to bring something to the party, which was an intense knowledge of the negotiating history," he said.

"My view from having been involved in the negotiations line by line, word by word, comma by comma, was that there was an overwhelming argument that 1441 required a second stage but not a second resolution."

He said it had always been the case that the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, would have to rule on whether military action was legal and until he did, the question would be open to doubt.

"The final decision on the lawfulness of military action was one that was going to be taken by the attorney general and the attorney general alone," he said.

"Where I disagreed with him (Sir Michael) was that he had the right over and above the attorney general to say what was or was not lawful.

"In the absence of a decision by the attorney general, there had to be doubt. That was what I thought to be strange."

The inquiry heard repeated suggestions that former American president George Bush had decided to invade Iraq "come what may" by early 2003.

Panel member Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, a military historian, urged Mr Straw several times to re-examine notes of his conversations with then-US secretary of state Colin Powell to confirm this.

Sir Lawrence hinted that documents seen by the inquiry - but not made public - show Mr Bush planned to attack Iraq even if UN weapons inspector Hans Blix said Saddam Hussein was complying with resolution 1441.

He asked Mr Straw: "Can you start by confirming that you knew that military action was planned by the US for the middle of March come what may?

"You were copied in, presumably, to reports of conversations between the prime minister and the president?"

The former foreign secretary replied: "Yes, I don't think there was any key document that I should have seen that I didn't."

Sir Lawrence went on to ask him: "Was there any point where Powell said to you that even if Iraq complied, president Bush had already made a decision that he intended to go to war?"

Mr Straw responded: "Certainly not to the best of my recollection."

The historian then said: "I was going to suggest you might want to look through your conversations and check."

Mr Straw said: "I will go through the records because I think you are trying to tell me something."

Sir Lawrence went on: "Please do check, because I don't think the suggestion is what the British position would have been, it's whether the president's own mind was made up in a particular direction."

The inquiry panel has been given access to tens of thousands of pages of Government documents, the vast majority of which have not been made public.

Papers relating to discussions between British ministers and foreign politicians are particularly sensitive.

Inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot said Mr Straw was the only minister kept fully informed throughout the period before the war by former prime minister Tony Blair.

He asked him: "Do you think that with hindsight, and looking ahead as a lesson, a larger group than two would have made for a more effective and better-delivered process?"

Mr Straw admitted if it had been up to him, he would have set up a formal Cabinet committee at an early stage to discuss the issues.

He said: "If we had had a more formal process, would that have made it more legitimate? Would that have led to fewer questions in this inquiry?

"Almost certainly, yes."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before