Steve Richards: We probably know everything already

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The Independent Online

Two separate questions merge awkwardly in the row over cabinet discussions or the lack of them in the build-up to war. The first is the most fundamental. Was the Cabinet informed in detail about the build-up to war and its legality?

We already know the answer from the inquiries, the revealing memoirs of ministers and close onlookers.

The Cabinet was not properly informed and nor did most of its members challenge what Tony Blair was up to. The diaries of David Blunkett, who was home secretary at the time, are a revealing source and they were published without much of a fanfare long ago.

During the very early stages of the build-up to war Blunkett had his doubts, daring to ask Blair a few questions. But on the eve of the conflict he reports that he could not bear to go into the Commons to hear Robin Cook's resignation speech. Like nearly all his colleagues he had opted quickly for unquestioning support of Blair's maniacally dangerous and yet defensively expedient manoeuvrings.

Clare Short, who resigned after the war, confirmed again yesterday that there were no proper cabinet discussions. Short's view is echoed by the diaries of Peter Stodhart, the former editor of The Times, who was allowed into No 10 for the build-up. He reports that the Cabinet was close to being seen as a time-wasting irrelevance.

The second question is a different one. Should the cabinet minutes be released? The answer is not as straightforward. Admittedly Jack Straw has always had an over-sensitive, managerial view. From the beginning in 1997 he was sceptical about Labour's commitment to a Privacy of Information Act, which is why Blair put him in charge of the relevant legislation, a classic Blairite third way: a Freedom of Information Act pioneered by a cabinet minister opposed to freedom of information.

But Straw has a strong point in this case, at least in principle. If cabinet ministers work on the assumption that their supposedly private meetings will be made public so quickly they are bound to feel constrained. The scope for cabinet scrutiny of a prime minister is diminished rather than heightened. But in the midst of another torrid week the Government is bound to lose out politically as the move gives the impression that it is trying to hide something when almost certainly we know already what there is to know.