When the House of Commons returns next week, Iain Duncan Smith will face a personal and political decision that must rank as among the most challenging of his career. He has to decide how the Conservative party handles Iraq.
Iain has a special responsibility, both to the nation and to the party. Some time before British troops went into battle to seek and destroy weapons that were said to threaten this country, the Leader of the Opposition was invited to No. 10 for a briefing on Privy Council terms. By accepting a discussion on those terms he would have felt a deep commitment not to seek to abuse the privilege, or to play politics with it. That is what one would expect. Whether he was wise to accept so binding a commitment in such questionable circumstances is another matter.
I cannot know what questions Iain asked or what answers he was given. I assume, however, that he would have wanted to be reassured on two principal counts. First, could the proposed action be justified under international law and would the Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, back the use of British troops? Second, how secure was the intelligence upon which so momentous a decision was about to be taken?
These questions go to the heart of the matter. We know the substance of the answers because the Prime Minister has answered them in Parliament and the media. Weapons of mass destruction could be ready for use within 45 minutes and the Attorney-General had given the Cabinet clear advice that it had a watertight case in international law if it relied on existing United Nations resolutions.
We are not allowed to see the Attorney-General’s advice, but I have always assumed that it was couched in less than certain terms. That view was reinforced by the dismissive response I received when I consulted two of Britain’s most eminent judges about the matter. To me it seemed, and seems, to be stretching the meaning of words to breaking point to argue that the ‘serious consequences’ mentioned in UN Resolution 1441 meant that Iraq would be invaded if it did not comply. Every observer knew that those words had been chosen precisely because the UN would not stomach any words that implied force.
The Attorney-General would presumably argue with good cause that he gave his advice on the best evidence available to him at the time. If a criminal asserts his innocence — most of them do — no one blames the lawyers for putting the best case forward. But the Attorney-General is not just a lawyer hired for the moment; he is a member of a government and therefore shares responsibility on the widest scale. So what does the Attorney-General say today? We do not know, but the Americans have produced the most authoritative evidence so far that nothing has been found to justify the assertions which underpinned the decision to invade: that is, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction which threatened our security. Furthermore, Robin Cook now asserts that the Prime Minister himself had ceased to believe in the existence of WMD two weeks before the invasion, and Jack Straw is said to have urged delay hours before our troops went into action. I repeat the point I made in the Guardian a month ago. I was present when, in November last year, a senior Democrat with close connections to the Bush administration told a London audience that the UN was irrelevant. The decision to attack Iraq had been taken and would proceed.
Iain Duncan Smith and the Attorney-General now find themselves with a common problem. On the evidence available today, they were deceived. But by whom? It is difficult to conceive of a more serious charge than that a British Prime Minister knowingly lied to Parliament in order to justify a decision to send our troops to war. I find this as hard to believe today as I did a year ago. So what can the Prime Minister say? He can change the terms of reference by claiming that WMD were incidental to the original decision. He can say that Saddam was an evil man who threatened the stability of the region and that, for the benefit of the Arab world and the citizens of Iraq, he had to go. The weakness of this argument is that it was not the one advanced at the time. It is quite unacceptable for it now to be used as an escape clause for what, in the harshest light, is a monumental historic blunder.
But the Prime Minister could have another and more defensible case. He could argue that he acted on the best evidence available to him at the time. In other words, he could put himself in the same position as the leader of the Conservative party and the Attorney-General. But so to argue would switch the spotlight on to those who briefed the Prime Minister and upon whom he was entitled to rely. It is understandable that a prime minister would wish to protect our intelligence services. But the fact is that he is not protecting them by allowing the doubts to fester while the people who offered the original advice remain in charge. Is it possible that such evidence as we had was blown up out of all proportion in order to fabricate a case that would never have withstood a moment’s scrutiny on its merits? What other conclusion can one draw other than that our intelligence was inadequate or that we were deceived?
Given all that, I do not understand how with honour the Attorney-General can stay in a government that apparently allowed him to be so seriously misled.
I do not believe that Iain Duncan Smith can be thought to have any responsibility for a briefing that now appears to be without foundation. The Prime Minister must not be allowed to change the basis of the case he presented as a justification for war. The Hutton inquiry must not be paraded as a proper report on the causes and justification for war. It is not and it was never intended to be. It is a convenient diversion into tragic but essentially irrelevant events that is convenient for a government determined at all costs to prevent the British people from being given the truth.
The case for a full judicial inquiry is unanswerable, and all the resources of the parliamentary opposition should be deployed to such an end.