A profound misjudgement with terrible results

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The appearance of any government document labelled "secret" attracts a particular fascination. The chequered history of the Attorney General's legal advice to the Prime Minister guaranteed that it would be treated as a special trophy when it finally saw the light of day. And so it proved. Its publication yesterday, in the last week of the election campaign, demonstrated just how much the questionable legality of the Iraq war was judged to be dragging down Labour's campaign.

The appearance of any government document labelled "secret" attracts a particular fascination. The chequered history of the Attorney General's legal advice to the Prime Minister guaranteed that it would be treated as a special trophy when it finally saw the light of day. And so it proved. Its publication yesterday, in the last week of the election campaign, demonstrated just how much the questionable legality of the Iraq war was judged to be dragging down Labour's campaign.

Inevitably, given the extraordinary expectations, the full text of the legal advice was in some respects anti-climactic. The Attorney General was, indeed, equivocal in his assessment. His conclusion was that a second UN Security Council resolution expressly authorising war was highly desirable, but not absolutely essential. In his lawyerly way, he set out the case; it was up to the client - the Prime Minister - to decide what to do.

In this sense, Mr Blair was right to say that here was no "smoking gun". But he was wrong to dismiss it as a "damp squib". The advice contains a number of new, and embarrassing, revelations. They include incontrovertible evidence of the divisions that already existed between London and Washington on what would constitute a legal basis for war. They also show that one of the Government's greatest fears was that it could be challenged through the courts, perhaps successfully.

As significant as the advice itself, however, is the fact that it has finally been disclosed. Government legal advice is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, so there was no obligation to publish. Over the months, Mr Blair had fiercely refused demands for its release. The latest leaks, first of the main conclusions, then of the verbatim summary, left Downing Street with little choice but to publish the document in its entirety.

It is hard to believe that this is where the Prime Minister wanted his campaign to be six days before the election. After managing for the best part of three weeks to keep the Iraq war off the electoral agenda, ministers had to watch as it stormed back to centre stage. The manifesto for business that Mr Blair and Gordon Brown tried to present with great fanfare yesterday was effectively drowned out.

The question is whether publication of the legal advice will free the Government to return to the issues it would prefer to campaign on - such as health, education and the economy - or simply amplify the original doubts about the Prime Minister and the war. Now we have seen the legal advice in full, the discrepancy between it and the summary given to Parliament by the Attorney General 10 days later is all the starker. The first is a balanced consideration of the legal arguments; the latter a legal justification for the war - which, strictly speaking, is what was asked for.

Inevitably, all the old questions crowd in. Did the Attorney General change his mind and, if so, why? Was the parliamentary question deliberately couched in such a way as to elicit a one-sided answer and, if so, by whom and why? Is this the same summary that Lord Goldsmith gave to the Cabinet?

We have not been among those who have accused the Prime Minister of lying. On the other hand, the history of the dossiers on Iraq's non-existent weapons and the informality of Downing Street deliberations that left meetings un-minuted and decisions taken in a tiny circle of like-minded individuals point at very least to defective government: a culture of spin, a laxness of procedures and a lack of accountability at the top. This may or may not amount to a lack of integrity. It certainly reflects a profound misjudgement which had catastrophic results.

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