Tony Blair has revealed he disregarded some of the legal guidance given to him by his top adviser in the run-up to the Iraq war. The former PM concedes there was “inconsistency”.
In a written statement to the Iraq Inquiry, Tony Blair said he believed the Attorney General, his top legal adviser during the build-up to the war in Iraq, would change his position after further consultation.
He said Lord Goldsmith’s view that there should be a “further decision” from the UN over the legality of the Iraq invasion was provisional, and he did not understand it because the US and UK had “expressly refused” such language in the UN resolution 1441.
In Tony Blair’s second appearance in front of the Iraq Inquiry, he has been further questioned on the issue.
He told the panel: “I was making basically a political point – however I accept entirely that there was an inconsistency between what he [Peter Goldsmith] was saying and what I was saying…
“I was making basically a political point – however I accept entirely that there was an inconsistency between what he [Peter Goldsmith] was saying and what I was saying…” Tony Blair
“I was saying it not in a sense as a lawyer but politically.
“This was a very difficult situation – I was trying to hold the line and my position…. My point was this – what happens if it’s accepted as a breach – but still they veto?
“Peter [Goldsmith] would say – ‘tough’, that’s just the way it is.
“I think Peter says it was uncomfortable for him – it was uncomfortable for me.”
Even though Lord Goldsmith, had consistently warned that the United Nations resolution 1441 did not provide legal grounds for an invasion, the then Prime Minister continued to promise UK backing for military action.
He told the inquiry that, if he had revealed that he was being advised that a second resolution was necessary to justify an invasion it would have increased the chances that countries like Russia and France would veto such a resolution.
Excerpt from Tony Blair's written statement to the Iraq Inquiry
I was aware of course of Peter Goldsmith's advice on 14 January in his note; but, as I say earlier, I was also aware that he had not yet had the opportunity to speak to Sir Jeremy Greenstock or to the U.S. counterparty.
I had not yet got to the stage of a formal request for advice and neither had he got to the point of formally giving it.
So I was continuing to hold to the position that another resolution was not necessary. I knew that the language of 1441 had represented a political compromise.
“I wasn’t going to be in a position where I stepped back until I knew I had to,” said Mr Blair. “Because I believed that if I started to articulate this in a way of saying ‘I can’t be sure’, the effect of that on the US, on the coalition and, most importantly, on Saddam would have been dramatic.
“If I had, through that period of January and February (2003) gone out and said anything that indicated there was a breach in the British position – that there was a chink of light that had opened up – it would have been a political catastrophe for us.”
“If I had…gone out and said anything that indicated there was a breach in the British position – that there was a chink of light that had opened up – it would have been a political catastrophe for us.” Tony Blair
Mr Blair said the instructions to Britain’s UN negotiators had been to ensure that the first resolution (1441) provided an ultimatum that would mean that if Saddam Hussein did not allow the return of UN weapons inspectors he would be regarded as being in breach and military action could be taken.
But – ahead of a crucial meeting with President Bush at the White House at the end of January 2003 – the Attorney General wrote: “My view remains that a further (UN) decision is required”.
Mr Blair said that – in the end – Lord Goldsmith came round to accepting that a second resolution was not needed.
A memo written by Mr Blair’s chief foreign policy adviser, Sir David Manning, about that meeting on 31 January – marked “extremely sensitive” – said that President Bush was determined to invade Iraq without a further UN resolution – with the start date for the campaign pencilled in for 10 March.
“Our diplomatic strategy had to be arranged around the military planning,” Sir David wrote.
He added: “The Prime Minister said he was solidly with the President and ready to do whatever it took to disarm Saddam.”
Earlier, Mr Blair had told the inquiry that he had come to the conclusion that the world had to “deal with” Saddam Hussein after the 11 September attacks on the United States, because of the threat represented by “weapons of mass destruction”.
He insisted that Cabinet Ministers had been aware of the developing policy and that – by April 2002 – it was clear that, unless Saddam allowed in weapons inspectors “action will follow”.
Mr Blair – who first appeared before the inquiry in January last year – has been recalled to be questioned on “discrepancies” in evidence over when Mr Blair had given his commitment to President Bush that Britain would back the United States if troops were sent into Iraq and what legal advice was given at what stage on the legality of any such action.
New evidence emerged this week that the then Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, had “learned” in October 2002 – five months before the invasion – “that the Prime Minister had indicated to President Bush that he would join the US in acting without a second Security Council decision if Iraq failed to take the action that was required by the draft resolution”.
Lord Goldsmith told the inquiry that he was “uncomfortable” with Tony Blair’s statement to Parliament on 15 January 2003 that in certain circumstances a further Security Council resolution would not be necessary. Asked if this statement was “compatible” with legal advice he had given to the then Prime Minister, he replied: “No”.
It also emerged this week that the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, had refused to declassify messages between Mr Blair and President Bush. Although the inquiry panel has seen these documents, it is prevented from publishing them or quoting from them in questioning Mr Blair.
Sir John said he was “disappointed” by this decision and warned that Mr Blair would face “firm questioning” over the exchanges.
One of Mr Blair’s private secretaries, Matthew Rycroft, said in private evidence published by the inquiry this week that the former Prime Minister regarded the messages as part of a “personal dialogue” between him and the President and that they had been deleted from the official record.