Andy McSmith: No 10's attitude to legal advice - hear no evil, see no evil

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair sounded convincing when he addressed the Commons on 15 January 2003 about the impending war with Iraq. After 9/11, he had committed himself to stand shoulder to shoulder with the US. He was also a trained lawyer at the head of a government which had a more respectful view of international law than the US.

This was highlighted in advice he received from Lord Goldsmith as late as 7 March 2003, on the very eve of war. The US government believed it was qualified to decide without reference to other members of the UN Security Council that Iraq was breaking UN sanctions and, by implication, to invade Iraq without a UN mandate. Lord Goldsmith warned Blair that he was "not aware of any other state which supports this view".

What the latest documents released by the Chilcot inquiry reveal is how Tony Blair and his advisers handled this difficult dilemma in the earlier months, as war clouds loomed over Iraq.

They did it by persuading their attorney general to give them as little advice as was absolutely necessary, and not to put it in writing. That way, they could avoid hearing that what was being planned conflicted with international law.

But even the little advice they received seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Tony Blair rightly guessed that if the US or UK tried to push a resolution through the Security Council explicitly authorising them to go to war, it would be vetoed by either Russia or France.

Blair had his answer to that when he told MPs that "there are circumstances in which a UN resolution is not necessary, because it is necessary to say in circumstances where an unreasonable veto is put down that we would still act." But we know that this notion of the "unreasonable veto" conflicted with the advice that Tony Blair had been given by the attorney general the day before. No wonder Lord Goldsmith says that the prime minister's words made him "uncomfortable". What he does not explain is how, only two months later, he came to believe that what the US and UK were embarking on was legal after all.

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