Leading article: Sympathy for Straw should be limited

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The Independent Online

It was somehow fitting that Jack Straw should notch up the most appearances – three – of those called to give evidence to the Chilcot inquiry and that his final session should have been scheduled for the last day of public hearings. As Foreign Secretary at the time, Mr Straw occupied a key position in the government that took Britain to war; he has also emerged as one of the most conflicted of witnesses, describing his eventual decision to support the war as the hardest of his life.

Certainly, Mr Straw found himself in a difficult position as a war, about which he clearly had misgivings, became inevitable. But sympathy for his predicament should be limited. He has spun an increasingly self-justifying story with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. And yesterday was no exception. Asked about any plans to topple Saddam Hussein, he went to some lengths to deny that regime-change was ever a motive for Britain going to war, and insisted that he had expressly warned Tony Blair that military action to that end would be illegal. Mr Straw thus emerges as a wise counsellor, a stickler for the law, and someone who hoped, to the very last, that military action would be averted as Saddam saw sense.

Mr Straw has also sheltered behind the "sofa government" charges that featured in the findings of the Butler inquiry and have emerged strongly, too, from Chilcot. Clearly, Mr Blair was concerned – as both Mr Straw and Sir Gus O'Donnell testified – about the risk of leaks from a divided Cabinet. Clearly, too, he preferred informal to formal discussion where Iraq was concerned – tactics that made it less likely that his plans would face a serious challenge. It is also common knowledge that the status and influence of the Foreign Office had declined, as foreign policy was increasingly run from Downing Street.

But this does not absolve senior members of the Cabinet of their responsibility for making objections known, or from considering their position in the old-fashioned way in order to go public with their concerns. The post of Foreign Secretary is one of the great offices of state; a more courageous stand from Mr Straw might have spared Britain, if not Mr Blair, this grievous mistake.