Tony Blair's insistence that the war on Iraq was legal suffered a blow yesterday when a former senior government lawyer broke her silence to challenge the assertion.
Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the former deputy legal adviser at the Foreign Office, revealed in a statement that she had quit her post on the eve of the conflict because she disagreed with the Attorney General's advice.
Ms Wilmshurst, 55, who was a member of the Foreign Office legal team for 30 years, had held the post since 1997. Her resignation shocked many in Whitehall at the time but it received little attention as the war got under way. Now head of the International Law Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, she has decided reveal why she resigned.
"I left my job because I did not agree that the use of force against Iraq was lawful, and in all the circumstances I did not want to continue as a legal adviser," Ms Wilmshurst said.
Just days before military action began, Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, published a short version of his own legal advice, stating that no new UN resolution was needed to legitimise the action under international law. He relied on UN resolutions passed at the time of the Gulf War of 1990-1991 to authorise force against Saddam Hussein's breach of his disarmament obligations.
But many lawyers disagreed with his approach, including former Foreign Office advisers. Sir Franklin Berman, legal adviser from 1991 to 1999, and Sir Arthur Watts, legal adviser from 1987 to 1991, expressed regret that the search for a second resolution had been abandoned. This week lawyers for Katharine Gun, the cleared GCHQ whistleblower, suggested that Lord Goldsmith himself had changed his mind as late as January 2003.
Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said Ms Wilmshurst's statement "raises yet more questions and creates more confusion".