There was never an honest debate in cabinet

The author of this article, Clare Short, was international development secretary, 1997-2003, when she resigned from the Blair Government.

Clare Short: There was never an honest debate in cabinet

Most ministers saw little intelligence and knew only what they read in the press

19 July 2004

The Prime Minister and those who speak for him keep telling us that the Butler report found that the prime minister acted in "good faith'' over Iraq. The report does not say this but Lord Butler said it at his press conference.

It's worth asking what good faith means. I think it means that a person was convinced that what they were doing was right. It does not mean they were right or wise or accurate in their claims. We might also ask, is it possible to lie in good faith?

When he made his statement on the Butler report to the House of Commons, the Prime Minister reiterated the twin arguments he now uses to justify his Iraq policy. The first being that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein. The second that, after 11 September, there was a greatly increased danger that WMDs and terrorism would come together and he therefore had to act.

I believe the Prime Minister holds both these views in good faith. But, on both, he is wrong. The people of Iraq are overwhelmingly glad that Saddam Hussein has gone but, by big majorities, say their lives are now worse. It is also widely acknowledged at al-Qa'ida is much strengthened, the Middle East angrier and more unstable and as many as 7,000 Iraqi soldiers, 13,000 civilians and 1,000 coalition troops have so far lost their lives.

The claim that the war stopped WMD and terrorism coming together is more extraordinary. There were of course no WMDs used in the events of 11 September 2001. There is evidence that Osama bin Laden has shown an interest in obtaining chemical, biological and nuclear expertise. The Butler report summarises the evidence and concludes that there is no evidence that he has capability. But it also points out that the Joint Intelligence Committee made it clear that, although there had been contacts between al-Qa'ida and the Iraqi regime, there was no evidence of co-operation. Thus, the Prime Minister may have believed in good faith that he was preventing WMDs and terrorism coming together but such a belief has no basis in reality.

The report looks into the use of intelligence by the Attorney General to decide that there was legal authority for war. It concludes that there was no reliance on intelligence and that what Lord Goldsmith did was "require the Prime Minister, in the absence of a further United Nations Security Council resolution, to be satisfied that there were strong factual grounds for concluding that Iraq had failed to take the final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations ... and that it was possible to demonstrate hard evidence of non-compliance and non-cooperation with the requirements of UN Security Council resolution 1441''.

After negotiations on a further Security Council resolution broke down, the Attorney General wrote to the PM seeking confirmation that it was unequivocally the Prime Minister's view that Iraq was in breach of resolution 1441. The Prime Minister, without consulting the Cabinet, confirmed that this was his view shortly after Dr Blix had destroyed more than 70 ballistic missiles and reported improved co-operation from the Iraqi regime.

The Prime Minister also misled his Cabinet, Parliament and country in his claim that the French said they would veto any second resolution. In fact, Dr Blix had asked for more time and we now know that President Chirac and other Security Council members had made it clear that, if Dr Blix failed, it would be necessary to authorise war. Presumably, Lord Butler would argue that the Prime Minister engaged in this deception in good faith.

When Lord Butler asked who was responsible, he said it was a collective failure. Yet the report draws attention to the Prime Minister's very informal style of decision-making. It tells us there were papers written to inform cabinet discussion that were not circulated, therefore cabinet members were unable to take advice or reflect on issues in advance. However, we are told that the Cabinet discussed Iraq on 24 occasions. But most members of the Cabinet saw little intelligence, read no papers and knew only what they read in the press.

Mr Blair raised Iraq after the summer recess of 2002 at every cabinet meeting. He would start by saying a few words, inviting Jack Straw or Geoff Hoon to speak and then intervening repeatedly to inform the Cabinet of developments. Their advice was never sought. They were kept informed and most were willing to go along with the Prime Minister but there was no collective decision which was thrashed out in honest debate and to which the Cabinet then adhered.

In fact, since 1997, there has not been cabinet government in Britain. Power is centralised around the Prime Minister's informal entourage and patronage is used ruthlessly to keep people in line. The Prime Minister does not hold himself responsible to Cabinet or Parliament but to the media, which is why Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson have been so powerful.

Under the Blair regime, much more than under Margaret Thatcher, British constitutional arrangements are crumbling. The votes of one in four of the people in the 2001 election produced a majority of 64 per cent in the Commons. This means almost anything can be rammed through the Commons and the only resistance comes from the House of Lords. Power has been sucked into No 10 and policy is driven by headline-grabbing announcements. It means that checks and balances have broken down, and that leads to ill-considered policy - most tragically in Tony Blair's policy towards Iraq.

18 July 2004 19:36

Informant: Dian Davies


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