Clare Short says cabinet misled on Iraq war legality

2 February, 2010 — BBC News

Short: “I think he misled the cabinet. He certainly misled me, but people let it through.”

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Tony Blair’s cabinet was “misled” into thinking the war with Iraq was legal, ex-International Development Secretary Clare Short has told the UK’s inquiry. She said Attorney General Lord Goldsmith had been “leaned on” to change his advice before the invasion.
Mr Blair “and his mates” decided war was necessary, and “everything was done on a wing and a prayer”, Ms Short said.

She quit the cabinet two months after the March 2003 invasion, in protest at planning for the war’s aftermath.

In her evidence to the Iraq inquiry, during which she was highly critical of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, she said the cabinet had not been a “decision-making body” and called Parliament a “rubber stamp”.

Ms Short, who was given a round of applause after her three-hour appearance, added that she had been “conned” into staying on as a minister until May 2003, despite her misgivings about the war.

‘Want to be loyal’

The attorney general provisionally advised Mr Blair in January that year that it would be unlawful to invade Iraq without a further United Nations Security Council resolution.

But he changed his mind a month later after being persuaded to talk to senior US government lawyers and Britain’s ambassador to the UN, Sir Jeremy Greenstock.

Short exit had ‘limited impact’

A definitive statement circulated at cabinet on 17 March 2003, three days before the war began.

Ms Short said there was no suggestion given that he had had any legal doubts, and said that any discussion of the legal advice was halted at that pre-war cabinet meeting.

She had been “shocked” that the attorney general’s advice was so late but was “jeered at” to be quiet by other ministers when she asked why.

Ms Short said that, when she repeated the question to Lord Goldsmith, he had replied: “Oh, it takes me a long time to make my mind up.”

In light of the attorney general’s “doubts and his changes of opinion” that have since emerged, Ms Short said: “I think for the attorney general to come and say there’s unequivocal legal authority to go war was misleading.”

She said: “I think he misled the cabinet. He certainly misled me, but people let it through.”

Ms Short said that, after the failure to secure a second UN resolution, the government had put out “untrue” claims that France had vetoed it.

‘A lot of flak’

But she added that “I believed them at the time. You don’t want to disbelieve your prime minister in the run-up to war and you want to believe the leader of your party. You want to be loyal”.

Asked why she did not resign earlier, like her cabinet colleague Robin Cook, Ms Short said: “I was conned.”


Peter Biles
Peter Biles, BBC World Affairs correspondent:

Clare Short took on the mantle of crowd-pleaser. She received a warm round of applause from the public gallery after three hours of evidence.

This was not the most dramatic session of the inquiry, but it was by far the most entertaining.

To the disquiet of the stenographer, she maintained a furious pace in what amounted to a withering attack on Tony Blair’s government and on the workings of Whitehall.

Words like “deceit”, “misled”, “conned”, “secrecy” and “shocked” were at the heart of her testimony. It was easy to see why some earlier witnesses to the inquiry had said Ms Short was difficult to deal with.

Asked about a troubled relationship with Lord Michael Boyce, the former chief of defence staff, she thought he had been told “to have nothing to do with her” in 2003.

Ms Short added: “He had spent a lot of his life in submarines… and it showed.”

She told the inquiry panel that Mr Blair had promised the UN a strong role in Iraq’s reconstruction and further action to resolve the Israel-Palestine situation.

Ms Short said: “I thought that if we got a Palestinian state and a UN lead on reconstruction, that will be much better…

“I took a lot of flak for it. I still think, if we had done those things, it would have been a heck of a lot better.”

Ms Short also told the inquiry that she “was seeing the intelligence” to do with Iraq during the earlier stages of preparations for a possible invasion.

But, in late, 2002 she added: “We asked for a briefing… This just didn’t come and didn’t come… it became clear there was some sort of block on communications.”

Ms Short, who now sits in the Commons as an independent MP, eventually quit the government over the lack of UN involvement in the reconstruction effort.

Mr Blair told the inquiry last week that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had been a “monster” who, he believed, “threatened not just the region but the world”.

He said British and US attitudes towards the threat posed by Iraq “changed dramatically” after the terror attacks on 11 September 2001, since they highlighted the dangers of potential links between failed states in possession of weapons of mass destruction and terrorist groups.

‘Difficult to handle’

But Ms Short told the inquiry Mr Blair’s evidence was “historically inaccurate”, adding: “There was no evidence of any kind of an escalation of threats.”

She also said: “We could have gone more slowly and carefully and not have had a totally destabilised and angry Iraq.”

“The American people were misled to suggest that al-Qaeda had links to Saddam Hussein.

“Everybody knows that is untrue – that he had absolutely no links, no sympathy, al-Qaeda were nowhere near Iraq until after the invasion and the disorder that came from that.”

During an earlier hearing, former head of the armed forces Lord Boyce suggested officials from Ms Short’s department had refused to co-operate fully in the immediate aftermath of the invasion because of their opposition to the war.

Mr Blair’s former spokesman, Alastair Campbell, told the inquiry that Ms Short had been “difficult to handle” in the run-up to the invasion and suggested there was a fear she might leak things she did not agree with.

But, in his evidence, former Cabinet Secretary Lord Turnbull said such criticism was unfair and Ms Short and other more independent voices in cabinet had been effectively sidelined.

Hilary Benn, who succeeded Ms Short as international development secretary, will also give evidence on Tuesday.