At last, the damning evidence that should bury Blair for his lies over Iraq
Documents released by the Chilcot Inquiry on Monday appear to show that Tony Blair misled Parliament and the public about the legality of the Iraq war
The Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War has dragged on for 14 months, and is far from over. Dozens of witnesses have been questioned, and millions of words of evidence amassed.
Even the most diligent onlooker may be forgiven for losing the plot. That may explain why a piece of sensational information released by the inquiry on Monday has not yet caused the political earthquake it should have.
Many newspapers have so far either ignored or underplayed it, and the BBC has hitherto showed limited interest. And yet the new documents appear to establish more clearly than ever before that Tony Blair misled Parliament and the public about the legality of the war.
Some of the former Prime Minister’s political opponents and a few newspapers have previously accused him of lying, but the ‘smoking gun’ was never quite produced. This time it has been. His accuser is the former Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, a member of the Labour government before, during and after the invasion of Iraq.
In secret evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry, declassified on Monday, Lord Goldsmith stated that Mr Blair based his case for invasion on grounds that ‘did not have any application in international law’. Coming from the man who was the Government’s senior law officer, this is an extremely serious charge.
Lord Goldsmith told the inquiry that he felt ‘uncomfortable’ about the way Mr Blair ignored his official legal advice when making his case to Parliament. Asked whether ‘the Prime Minister’s words were compatible with the advice you had given him’, he replied: ‘No.’
A specific incident to which the former Attorney General referred was Mr Blair’s statement to the Commons on January 15, 2003, when he asserted that ‘there are circumstances in which a UN resolution is not necessary, because it is necessary to be able to say, in circumstances where an unreasonable veto was put down, that we would still act’.
In other words, in his view Britain could legally ignore a veto in the UN Security Council by France or Russia, both of which were opposed to an invasion, and declare war on Iraq. Yet Lord Goldsmith had advised the Prime Minister the previous day that Britain did not have the legal right to invade Iraq.
Mr Blair repeated the fiction on BBC2’s Newsnight on February 6, 2003 that Britain could disregard a UN veto. As when addressing MPs, he was suppressing the advice of the Government’s senior law officer. He also ignored similar legal advice from Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the Deputy Legal Adviser at the Foreign Office, who resigned on the eve of war.
Indeed, it is clear from Lord Goldsmith’s testimony that the Attorney General was ‘no longer actively consulted’ for several months after warning Mr Blair in person on October 22, 2002, that an Anglo-American invasion of Iraq would be a breach of international law. He was frozen out.
For reasons that have never been properly explained, Lord Goldsmith changed his mind, and on March 17, 2003, days before the invasion of Iraq, he miraculously declared that it was legal after all.
In secret evidence to the inquiry, former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith stated that Mr Blair based his case for invasion on grounds that 'did not have any application in international law'
Setting aside that inexplicable, and very possibly discreditable, last-minute change of mind, it is clear from his own testimony that Lord Goldsmith behaved improperly in the months leading up to war. Once it was evident that the Prime Minister was ignoring his official advice — and telling Parliament that a course of action was legal which the Attorney General thought illegal — honour and duty should have compelled his resignation.
Had he stood down at that time, explaining that he and the Prime Minister fundamentally disagreed about the legality of war, it is likely that Mr Blair’s case would have disintegrated. At the very least, the lawfulness of the invasion would have been much more openly and robustly debated in Parliament and the country if the Attorney General’s true views had become known.
Fear, or love of office, held him back. The checks and balances that are supposed to restrain unbridled executive power cannot operate if senior government ministers shirk their responsibilities.
Lord Goldsmith, who had never been elected to office and was Mr Blair’s appointee, seems to have forgotten where his real responsibilities lay. Now that he is back in lucrative private practice as a lawyer, I trust he will ponder on the momentousness of his failure to speak out when he should have.
But it is Mr Blair, of course, who emerges in even darker colours, because he was the man who railroaded this country into war — invoking weapons of mass destruction which did not exist (and which he should have known did not exist) and, unless Lord Goldsmith’s testimony is to be dismissed by him as mendacious, misleading Parliament and the public.
On Friday, Mr Blair appears for the second time in front of the Chilcot Inquiry. When he appeared on the first occasion he displayed extreme nervousness — the response, one may reasonably surmise, of a man who knows he has done wrong. Nonetheless, he was given an easy ride by the five worthies who make up the committee.
This time, with Lord Goldsmith’s evidence in front of them, they have the material with which to unseat even a customer as slippery and evasive as Tony Blair. An experienced interrogator could tie him in knots. Whether these gentle characters — I partially exempt Sir Roderic Lyne, a former ambassador to Russia, who can be forensic — will make much headway remains to be seen. They should plug away again and again at the same point — the misleading of Parliament.
Most regrettably, the inquiry has been banned by the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, from releasing records of secret talks between Tony Blair and President George W. Bush. Disclosure is always uphill work in Britain. It was Tony Blair, remember, who while Prime Minister repeatedly turned down calls for an inquiry into the Iraq War on the grounds that there had already been three of them. (Actually, there hadn’t. All three had merely looked at aspects of the war.) It took Gordon Brown to set up a proper inquiry, thereby possibly creating a poison pill for his old rival.
That Mr Blair should so far have survived relatively unscathed is in many ways remarkable. After he was rightly accused of misleading Parliament over the invasion of Suez in 1956, Sir Anthony Eden was quickly forced to stand down as Prime Minister. One difference is that he had an angry Opposition on his tail. The Tories never went for Mr Blair because they had, mistakenly I believe, backed him in the Iraq War.
Is the net finally closing in? I confess I don’t have great hopes of the Chilcot Inquiry. But I do feel that when a former Attorney General accuses a former Prime Minister of misleading Parliament over so vital a matter, we have entered an important new phase. Sooner or later the seriousness of what Lord Goldsmith has said will sink in.
It is just possible he was moved to tell the truth after all these years because his conscience weighed on him. I do not have any similar hopes of Mr Blair. He will go on stonewalling until the end of time. But whatever official judgment is arrived at in the form of the Chilcot Inquiry, whether or not he is rebuked, the public now knows for sure that on a matter of supreme importance Tony Blair did not tell the truth.
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