If Parliament knew then what it knows now, it wouldn't have voted for war

The persuasive powers of the dossier were needed not just for public opinion, but for Parliament as well. And every vote counted
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The Independent Online

On the face of it, there is no connection between the re-opening yesterday of the Hutton inquiry and the revelation of Jack Straw's March minute envisaging Britain pulling out of the war in the absence of a second UN resolution. Mr Straw's note has little to do with the tragic death of Dr Kelly. That said, the one does have a little more relevance to the other than meets the eye.

Jack Straw's March minute was an important piece of history, though probably not as a dissident expression of opposition to the war. Maybe this is hopelessly naive, but I tend to believe the official account that he was seeking to focus minds on what happened if it all went wrong in Parliament, rather than suggesting that Britain should pull out of the war if there was no second UN resolution, whatever happened in Parliament. (The latter, of course was indeed Robin Cook's position, and he honourably resigned when it became clear it was not going to happen.)

All going wrong meant, in Straw's view, not simply the House of Commons voting "no" - which was somewhat less likely given the Tory front bench's support - but that a majority of the Labour Party might do so, making Blair dependent on the Tories' support. Which, considering that majority opinion in the party, as in the country, didn't want a war without a second UN resolution, could certainly not be ruled out.

What seems to have happened was this. During the first week of March, it looked as if some of the potentially floating voters on the UN Security Council such Mexico and Chile began to think seriously about backing a second resolution. But then came the famous interview in which Jacques Chirac appeared to say that France would veto a second UN resolution in any circumstances. The Mexicans and Chileans among others assumed that there was no point in taking huge risk with their own domestic public opinion to back a resolution which would anyway be vetoed by the French.

It was at this point that Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the then British Ambassador to the UN, reported back to London that hopes of securing such a resolution were fast ebbing away. And it was then - early in the second full week of March - that Jack Straw wrote a minute on what might happen if the failure to get a UN resolution tipped the balance of PLP opinion against the war.

Nor was Mr Straw alone in looking over the abyss at the consequences of a parliamentary defeat. As I wrote during that week, there was discussion in other high government circles not only about the possibility of Tony Blair resigning should the Commons vote have actually gone against him - which, in an interview after the fall of Baghdad, he insisted he would have done - but also what the Government would have done about the war in the event of a defeat in Parliament - either actual or, in the sense of a majority of the PLP voting against war, moral.

And there was serious talk, and almost certainly serious contingency planning, about the possibility that Britain might have to limit itself to moral and logistical support, along perhaps with securing Iraq's borders and other military help stopping short of joining an invasion force; rather as Harold Wilson gave Lyndon Johnson every possible assistance over Vietnam short of sending a single British soldier. This was talk, moreover, which (in that same week) Donald Rumsfeld picked up on, probably because he was warned by Geoff Hoon of the consequences of an adverse Commons vote. Which was why he startled a Washington news conference by saying that the US could do the invasion of Iraq without the British if it came to it.

So what? It's all history, and anyway, in the end, it never came to a parliamentary defeat. But that's rather the point. For what the official explanation of the Straw minute illustrates - and this is in some ways more interesting than the merely personal explanation that the Foreign Secretary himself was having doubts - is the level of apprehension, at times bordering on panic, that infected government in the run-up to the vote on 18 March.

History will give to Blair the credit, as well as to Cook and Straw, for creating a huge, albeit informal, constitutional precedent by giving Parliament the final say on whether war should or shouldn't take place. The problem was that the very importance of that vote underlined the imperative of sticking to what, as Hutton has shown, was not exactly a cautious, balanced and comprehensive summary of all the available - and sometimes conflicting - intelligence. The persuasive powers of the dossier, or at least of the principal declarations in it, were needed not just for the luxury of turning round public opinion, which anyway hardened in favour of the war once it started. It was needed for Parliament as well. And every vote counted.

The interesting question is whether Parliament will ever again be prepared to sanction war, at least with a Labour majority in circumstances as controversial as these, with such minimal scrutiny of the government case. It is an irony that even after the event the Intelligence and Security Committee might never have made its more damaging discoveries - such as the intelligence advice that the collapse of the Iraqi regime might increase rather than decrease the risk of chemical agents finding their way into the hands of terrorists - had it not been for the Hutton inquiry, and therefore, tragically, had it not been for Dr Kelly's death. For what the first phase of Hutton hearings did, despite the valiant attempts by intelligence heads to dismiss this in the hearings yesterday, was to vindicate what had hitherto been confined to readily deniable media reports - namely that some very expert intelligence people indeed thought the document was "overegged".

Including some who were not against the war itself. Indeed it's worth saying yet again that this doesn't per se mean that it was necessarily wrong to go to war. The opponents of the war sometimes talk as if their criticisms would be just as telling if a Saddam-free Iraq were becoming the safe, democratic and peaceful country it currently isn't. The political reality is that Blair's problems over Iraq would be very much reduced if post-Saddam Iraq were to become a palpable success.

But what Straw's minute helps to illustrate is the crucial importance of that Commons vote. The Blairite argument isthat a "no" vote in the Commons would have not stopped the war and that - even at the cost of British lives - it was better to be with the Americans than to desert them. That's another debate. But it's a measure of the methods used to persuade Parliament as well as the public of the case for war that the Commons not only could have stopped Britain joining the war, but that it almost certainly would have done if it had known then what it knows now.