British intelligence gave Blair 'snippets of Chirac's private conversations'

By Andrew Grice, Political Editor

28 February 2004

Independent

Tony Blair will be challenged next week over allegations that he received British intelligence reports about the private conversations of Jacques Chirac in the approach to the Iraq war.

Labour MPs will press the Prime Minister about a claim in a new biography which says he received "snippets of the French President's private conversations" when France and Britain were in dispute over the prospect of military action. Mr Blair accused President Chirac of scuppering a second United Nations resolution authorising a war.

Philip Stephens, a political columnist at The Financial Times, says in his book: "Blair came to believe, partly on the basis of reports from British intelligence, that the dispute over Iraq was, in fact, a proxy for a much more serious contest.

"Chirac, these reports said, had decided that Blair had usurped his own position as the natural leader of Europe. It was time for the French President to reassert himself and clip the wings of perfidious Albion. In other words, this feud was personal as well as political."

The claim has added to the controversy over Clare Short's allegation on Thursday that British intelligence spied on Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general. If the claim is true, it suggests the British operation went beyond the UN headquarters in New York.

John McDonnell, the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, said: "It would cause me and large numbers of Labour MPs immense anxiety if the Government has authorised this kind of spying operation against the French President."

He added: "We need clarity from the Prime Minister. We need to know the extent of these operations, so we can ask on what grounds they were conducted and whether they were appropriate.

"It does demonstrate the level of obsession, or almost panic, to ensure the UN adopted a second resolution to justify the case for war." Mr McDonnell and fellow members of the left-wing Campaign Group of Labour MPs will table written Commons questions to the Prime Minister next week on the spying allegations.

They have put down a Commons motion urging him to make a statement about the scale of the "eavesdropping operation" and to clarify whether it included Mr Annan, permanent members of the UN Security Council, other countries, organisations opposed to the war and MPs.

In his book, Tony Blair - The Making of a World Leader, published in America last month, Mr Stephens says the Prime Minister believed President Chirac was "out to get him".

The French government is not planning any diplomatic protest over the allegation. French sources have denied the French President was motivated by a desire to stop the Prime Minister becoming the leading figure in the European Union. They insist he was anxious to prevent a premature war.

There is little sign that other parties will let the matter drop. Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party at Westminster, said: "Last year Tony Blair was lying, this year he's spying. Just when you thought Tony Blair couldn't sink any lower, he manages to plumb new depths of conduct. He has lost his moral compass."

Mr Salmond said the Crown Prosecution Service should be investigating Ms Short's allegation of illegal spying operations and uncovering who approved them.