Ben Russell: Art of never answering the question is modern politician's weapon

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The Independent Online

Jack Straw is an experienced politician and a wily lawyer who deployed all the arts of the advocate to defend the Government's position over the legality of war.

Jack Straw is an experienced politician and a wily lawyer who deployed all the arts of the advocate to defend the Government's position over the legality of war.

The inquiries into the approach to war, the claim that the Attorney General was "unequivocal" in his legal advice, the well-worn justification for the invasion, and even the arguments before Britain joined patrols of the no-fly zone above Iraq were all used by Mr Straw to fend off aggressive questioning by John Humphrys. The Foreign Secretary's first line of defence was to insist that the legal advice given by Lord Goldsmith had been examined by the Butler inquiry, despite interventions that the legality of war was not part of Butler's remit.

Mr Straw insisted Britain was "very clear" that Saddam's actions revived the authority for military action in UN resolutions of a decade before, but refused to discuss if a leak of earlier advice from the Attorney General was accurate, let alone whether Lord Goldsmith had dissented from that view in the past.

He declined to confirm or deny the leak to The Mail on Sunday which revealed six caveats in Lord Goldmith's legal opinion before he apparently changed his view and confirmed that an invasion would be legal. Mr Straw's cryptic reply was: "I'm simply not confirming it," but he claimed that listeners "are not entitled to assume it's accurate".

Mr Straw repeatedly said Lord Goldsmith's advice to the Cabinet on the eve of war was "unequivocal" despite detailed claims that only a few days earlier his advice was anything but. He also tried to shift the debate on to the broader question of whether the war was justified - away from the narrower but, to many, very important question, of whether and why legal advice on the war had changed.

Finally he deployed the argument much favoured in official circles: "What we have now got to is a far better Iraq, and those who opposed the war ... need to understand that much good has come to it."

The ill-tempered exchanges - Mr Straw once told the veteran interviewer to "keep your hair on" - were punctuated throughout with the phrase "with respect", "with great respect" and "with the greatest respect". As has been observed in the past, the phrase can be construed otherwise.

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