x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

PM Blair 'misled' cabinet on invasion of Iraq

Clare Short, a former cabinet member, said decisions in the run-up to war were made solely by the former British prime minister and his inner circle of advisers.

LONDON // A savage indictment of Tony Blair's "chaotic" style of government was delivered to the Iraq War inquiry by a former cabinet minister yesterday. Clare Short, who served as the secretary of state for international development under Mr Blair, said the cabinet was misled on the legal advice it was given over going to war in 2003, with decisions being made solely by the-then prime minister and his inner circle of advisers.

Ms Short, who resigned two months after the war because of Mr Blair's opposition to allowing the UN to lead reconstruction efforts, claimed that post-invasion planning was virtually non-existent. She said Gordon Brown, the current prime minister, had been "marginalised" in discussions over going to war and that there was a "deliberate blockage" of meaningful cabinet discussions on whether or not military action should be taken against Saddam Hussein.

"I think this is a chaotic way of doing things," she told the inquiry in London. "I think if ministers should be in charge of their department, then all voices should come to the table. "The government didn't act like that. Power was pulled into No 10; everything was announced to the media; the House of Commons was a rubberstamp. "In the case of Iraq, there was secretiveness and deception on top of that."

Ms Short claimed that Mr Blair had "conned" her when she wanted to resign from the cabinet before the war, by promising her that he would convince the United States to approve UN involvement in reconstruction, and by saying he would take action to resolve the Israel-Palestinian situation. "I thought that if we got a Palestinian state and a UN lead on reconstruction, that will be much better," she said. "I took a lot of flak for it [not resigning earlier]. I still think, if we had done those things, it would have been a heck of a lot better."

Ms Short, who has since resigned as the Labour Party whip and now sits in the Commons as an independent member, said she only found out full-scale war planning was in progress in February 2003, the month before the invasion. "We didn't know how quickly we were going to war. Given the lack of preparedness, we couldn't believe we would go so quickly," she said. It meant that post-war planning "was all done on a wing and a prayer - it was incredible" and it resulted in Iraq's being left in an "unholy mess", she added. Among documents declassified yesterday to coincide with Ms Short's appearance was one she sent to Mr Blair on February 14, 2003, warning him that "the vulnerability of the Iraqi people to humanitarian catastrophe should not be underestimated".

On March 5, 15 days before the invasion, she said the UN must be at the forefront of the reconstruction programme in Iraq, and that international backing for the war was essential for this to happen. As it was, she said, Lord (Peter) Goldsmith, the attorney general at the time, "misled" the cabinet over the legality of the war, having changed his mind on the situation after visiting Washington. Ms Short said she was unaware at the time of Lord Goldsmith's "doubts and his changes of opinion" and said ministers should have been told that the top two legal advisers in the foreign office, both of whom testified before the inquiry last week, believed that military action was unlawful without a new UN resolution.

"I think [Lord Goldsmith] misled the cabinet," Ms Short said. "He certainly misled me, but people let it through. She claimed that Lord Goldsmith was "leaned on" by Mr Blair to change his opinion - something both men deny - after the former had advised in January 2003 that war would be illegal without a further Security Council resolution. "It was suggested to him that he go to the US to get advice about the legal position," she added. "You have got the Bush administration who have very low respect for international law. It seems the most extraordinary place in the world to go to get advice about international law."

Ms Short, who was applauded by spectators in the public gallery at the end of her testimony, was dismissive about the alleged threat from al Qa'eda under Saddam. She was also damning about Mr Blair's relationship with then US president George W Bush, saying the prime minister was "so frantic to be with America" that he did not press for the invasion to be delayed until proper military and post-invasion planning was in place.

"Britain needs to think about this: the special relationship - what do we mean by it?" she said. "Do we mean we have an independent relationship and we say what we think, or do we mean we just abjectly go wherever America goes and that puts us in the big league? That's a tragedy." dsapsted@thenational.ae