Wilmshurst: An ovation for witness of principle

The Foreign Office lawyer who resigned on eve of Iraq war, because she believed it illegal, delivered 'a scorpion's sting'
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Indy Politics

After 30 days of testimony, it was two moments of human drama that summed up the story so far of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war. Neither was recorded in the official minutes, but each was significant. In one, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the former Foreign Office lawyer who resigned on the eve of the invasion, received spontaneous applause as she finished her testimony. In the other, Tony Blair was branded a "liar" and a "murderer" as he declared he had "not a regret" over Iraq. It was Ms Wilmshurst who was the star witness when she appeared last Tuesday. The deputy legal adviser resigned in March 2003 because she judged the war was illegal. Ms Wilmshurst said nothing for nearly seven years, then, as The Independent on Sunday predicted last week, she broke cover to condemn Mr Blair, Jack Straw and Lord Goldsmith, the then attorney general who ruled the invasion would be legal.

Now working on international lawyer at Chatham House, Ms Wilmshurst said the process led by ministers and officials in the run-up to war was "lamentable", with legal advice overlooked until the last minute and then overruled by Mr Blair and Mr Straw. She said going to war without a second UN resolution giving authority for military action was seen as a "nightmare scenario" by Foreign Office lawyers. "We were talking about a massive invasion of another country, a change in the government of that country, and in those circumstances it did seem to me that we ought to follow the safest route," Ms Wilmshurst said. "But it was clear that the Attorney General was not going to stand in the way of the Government."

One sketch writer described her performance as a "scorpion's sting" wrapped up in "velvet courage" as she dismissed the legal knowledge of Mr Straw, then Foreign Secretary, as he was "not an international lawyer".

Her immediate boss at the Foreign Office at the time, Sir Michael Wood, revealed publicly for the first time he believed the military action to be unlawful. Sir Michael told the inquiry that going to war without a second resolution would constitute a "crime of aggression" in international law. The evidence of both lawyers was damning of Lord Goldsmith. The Attorney General, as late as January 2003, ruled there was no legal basis for an invasion under resolution 1441.

Lord Goldsmith ruled on 7 March there was a "reasonable case" to proceed without a second resolution. Pressed by defence chiefs for a "yes or no" answer, Lord Goldsmith told the Cabinet on 17 March that 1441 does carry the necessary authority. Lord Goldsmith made some effort to claim the legality was "finely balanced", but in the end, the Attorney General gave Mr Blair the answer he wanted to hear.

Sir Michael did not resign. Perhaps the combination of two senior legal advisers quitting in disgust would have made a difference. But, ultimately, it was only Ms Wilmshurst who had the bravery to quit on principle. As she told the inquiry: "It is the job of a civil servant to implement [a decision], but it is also the right of a civil servant to leave if they don't want to do that."