Blair faces backbench backlash as pressure mounts to publish war advice

By Colin Brown and Kim Sengupta

25 March 2005


Tony Blair is under mounting pressure to publish the Attorney General's advice on the legality of the Iraq war after the revelation that Lord Goldsmith changed his mind to back the invasion shortly before it began.

Mr Blair faced an angry backlash at Westminster as Labour MPs warned the Prime Minister his leadership was now threatening to damage the party's vote in the forthcoming general election. One Labour MP said some middle-class voters would not vote Labour again until Mr Blair stood down, because of anger over Iraq. The row over the Attorney General's advice now threatens to overshadow the election campaign.

The Independent has also learned the fresh revelations about the Attorney General's doubts over the legality of the Iraq war are being viewed with concern and consternation by senior military figures.

The controversy has been re-ignited after it was revealed the Government blanked out a damning paragraph from a resignation letter by Elizabeth Wilmshurst, who resigned in protest at the war from her post as the deputy legal adviser at Foreign Office. The redacted two sentences, first revealed by Channel 4, said Lord Goldsmith had supported the view of her legal team that the war would be illegal without a second UN resolution, but changed his opinion 13 days before the attack.

Robin Cook, the former cabinet minister, yesterday led demands in the Commons for the "entire paper trail" of the Attorney General's advice to be published. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, rejected the calls, saying publishing such advice would have "very grave" implications for good government.

The Prime Minister was accused of running away from direct questioning by leaving the Foreign Secretary to answer an emergency question in the Commons. There were shouts of "where's Blair?" when Mr Straw began an emergency statement to MPs. Mr Blair arrived in the chamber for a statement on the EU summit as the Foreign Secretary faced hostile questions by MPs, including Mr Cook and Clare Short who both resigned from the Cabinet over Mr Blair's handling of the war.

The fresh controversy is also causing growing concern within the British military. The Independent has learnt that the then Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Michael Boyce, was unhappy with the equivocal nature of the legal advice he received from Lord Goldsmith in the run-up to the conflict. Senior officers said they had sought and been given what purported to be clear and unequivocal assurance by the Government that the war would not be illegal under international law.

Sir Michael, now Admiral the Lord Boyce, is said by colleagues to have expressed "disquiet" about what is now emerging and the possibility that what was said at the time did not reflect Lord Goldsmith's true views.

If the war was illegal, not only would British troops be potentially liable to face prosecution under an international war crimes tribunal but legal action could be taken against the Ministry of Defence by injured soldiers or relatives of troops killed in action.

According to senior defence sources, Admiral Boyce had the backing of all three service chiefs in demanding explicit legal assurance before sanctioning the plans for war. The initial legal advice the military was given - standard before commencement of military action involving British forces - was, according to senior officers, thought to be "equivocal ... needing further clarification".

Admiral Boyce is said to have told both the Prime Minister and Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon that further clarification was needed on whether war was justified without a second UN resolution, and he also made sure that this was transmitted to Lord Goldsmith. The admiral got his assurance on 15 March 2003,days before the war began.

"There has been talk that it was one line and one paragraph", said a source close to Admiral Boyce before he left for a trip abroad. "In fact it was three lines. Obviously something so short could hardly have rehearsed the legal arguments. But it gave what was needed - that the proposed action was legal under law, both domestic and international.

"It is not for the military to go into how that legal decision was made. But obviously there will be concern if it emerges that it was not the genuine view of the Attorney General. But, of course, this has not been proved so far."

Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Solicitor General, told MPs: "It would be far better if the entire paper trail were to be published to reassure the public the Attorney General was neither leaned on to change his views for party political reasons, nor deceived by the Prime Minister on the facts on which war might be justified."

Mr Straw said Lord Butler's inquiry into the use of intelligence in the run-up to war had seen Lord Goldsmith's advice: "Lord Butler came to his conclusion that the Attorney General had given clear and categorical advice to the Cabinet that in his judgment it was lawful under (UN) resolution 1441 to use force without a further UN security council resolution."

Mr Straw said it was "entirely proper" to black out parts of Ms Wilmshurst's letter as "their content concerned the provision of legal advice in relation to the use of force against Iraq". Successive administrations refused to publish legal advice. "The implications [of publishing legal advice] for good government are very grave indeed".

Michael Ancram, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "The Government scored an enormous own goal by failing under the Freedom of Information Act to release the whole of Miss Wilmshurst's letter. When it first transpired that an extract had been held back for reasons of public interest, I think it was a fair presumption that it was because of national security."


7 March 2003

Lord Goldsmith produces a 13-page legal opinion for Tony Blair. It is thought not to have given a definitive view on the legality of war, but argues that an invasion may be illegal and it would be better to secure a second UN Security Council resolution authorising military action.

13 March

Professor Christopher Greenwood, a lawyer who supports military intervention for humanitarian ends, is taken on by Lord Goldsmith to advise on the "different legal issues relating to the conflict and its aftermath".

14 March

French government indicates that France will not support a second UN Security Council resolution authorising military action.

17 March

Lord Goldsmith publishes a one-page parliamentary answer declaring that military action is legal based on Saddam Hussein's breaches of UN Security Council resolutions. He makes an oral presentation to the Cabinet on his legal opinion.

17 March

Robin Cook resigns as Leader of the House of Commons. Negotiations aimed at securing second UN Security Council resolution break down.

18 March

Tony Blair makes impassioned plea to MPs before they vote to back military action after a historic Commons debate. Elizabeth Wilmshurst resigns as a senior Foreign Office legal adviser, arguing the war would be a "crime of aggression".

20 March

First American missiles hit Baghdad as campaign to oust Saddam Hussein begins.