War is where it ought be: at the centre of this election

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The Independent Online

The revelations of the Attorney General's initial reservations on the legality of going to war in Iraq have rightly pushed Iraq into the centre of this election and appear to have dealt a fresh blow to Tony Blair's version of events. This newspaper has long argued that the Government should have published the whole, unexpurgated, text of Lord Goldsmith's advice on the legal case for going to war. The House of Commons and the public had a right to see for themselves the original arguments in full that Lord Goldsmith set out on 7 March 2003, not just the filleted "summary" delivered to Parliament 10 days later on 17 March.

The revelations of the Attorney General's initial reservations on the legality of going to war in Iraq have rightly pushed Iraq into the centre of this election and appear to have dealt a fresh blow to Tony Blair's version of events. This newspaper has long argued that the Government should have published the whole, unexpurgated, text of Lord Goldsmith's advice on the legal case for going to war. The House of Commons and the public had a right to see for themselves the original arguments in full that Lord Goldsmith set out on 7 March 2003, not just the filleted "summary" delivered to Parliament 10 days later on 17 March.

The Government, of course, disagreed, insisting that its legal advice ought to remain confidential and that anything to do with national security was exempt from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.

Now that Lord Goldsmith's original advice has been leaked anyway, it is clear that for purely pragmatic reasons, the Government would have been better off telling the truth about it earlier on. It transpires that the Government's chief legal adviser provided a list of solid arguments against going to war. To recap two of them, he questioned whether a Security Council resolution that was more than 10 years old provided a legal basis for going to war on its own. He also raised the issue of the weapons inspections that were still going on. Mr Blair said this didn't matter. Now we know the Government's legal adviser on 7 March 2003 thought it did.

Given that Lord Goldsmith's advice was bound to get out, it would have made sense for the Blair team to publish it at a time of their choosing instead of letting it bounce into the middle of the election campaign. Mr Blair must have been hoping he would race across the finishing line without Iraq ever having emerged as an election issue. His success in keeping Iraq virtually out of the news has been one of the wonders of the campaign. One reason is that his principal opponent has had no desire to remind the public that he and his party once supported the Iraq war with manic enthusiasm.

The Tories' obsession with immigration and asylum has also served the Blair camp well, dominating the news. In retrospect, it seems as if the Blair camp played along with the asylum furore. They have waited for the Tories to tie themselves up in knots over it while, all the time, relentlessly plugging their precarious economic achievements. And regrettably the Liberals Democrats have failed dismally to make any real running out of their opposition to the Iraq war, throwing away their unique calling card in this campaign.

The publication of the Attorney General's advice has upset the Blair camp's calculations on the Iraq war. Moreover, it appears to conform to a disturbing pattern of obfuscation and evasiveness on Mr Blair's part, as evidenced before in his handling of the "dodgy" dossier on weapons of mass destruction and the still unsolved business of his role in the naming of Dr David Kelly.

As is the way with great secrets when they come to light, the latest revelations prompt new questions. One is why Lord Goldsmith apparently changed his mind on the war between 7 March and 17 March. When the Government's deputy legal adviser, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, resigned, she did so partly in protest against the way the Attorney General had apparently altered his own opinion during the preceding 10 days.

The latest revelations about Lord Goldsmith's advice promise to inject desperately needed energy and seriousness into a lacklustre campaign. The war that was the defining issue of Mr Blair's second term has now been placed in the centre of the election. That is exactly where it ought to be.

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