Barely a month ago Prime Minister Tony Blair looked unstoppable. He’d survived, narrowly, a revolt within his own party over plans to allow universities to charge higher tuition fees. The Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr. David Kelly, the British weapons expert, completely cleared Blair of the charge that his government had “sexed up” the case for war on Iraq or had been at all at fault in its treatment of Dr. Kelly. Yet it is only a slight exaggeration to say that today Blair is one leak away from resignation. Even if he holds on, questions raised recently will haunt him and any successor tempted to follow Blair’s policy of shoulder-to-shoulder accommodation to US unilateralism.
Blair’s basic difficulty is that the British public, who were extremely reluctant to wage war on Iraq in the first place, now have good reason to believe they were lied to about both the nature of the Iraqi threat and the legality of sending British troops–fifty-nine of whom have died–into combat. Lord Hutton’s whitewash did Blair no good, for the simple reason that almost no one believed it. The government’s credibility suffered a more serious blow when it decided not to prosecute Katharine Gun, the former British intelligence officer who blew the whistle on US efforts to fix last year’s United Nations Security Council vote on Iraq. Gun admitted that she’d violated the Official Secrets Act when she leaked an e-mail asking for Britain’s help in spying on the nonpermanent delegates to the Security Council but argued that her actions were justified by the “necessity” to prevent an illegal war. When her lawyers asked for Attorney General Peter Goldsmith’s secret advice to the government on the legality of invading Iraq, the charges were suddenly dropped. The next day Clare Short, a member of Blair’s war cabinet, revealed that Britain had also spied on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan–insuring that her charge that Goldsmith “had doubts” about the war’s legality but “was leant upon” by the government would cause maximum damage.
Lord Goldsmith has already been forced to turn over the text of his advice to the parliamentary ombudsman, and it is hard to imagine that document remaining secret for much longer. The advice itself, essentially a lawyer’s brief, may be ambiguous enough for Blair to explain away. But if the conclusions were changed between drafts at Blair’s behest, he would probably have to resign.
The unanswered questions dogging the Prime Minister are: Did Downing Street put pressure on the Attorney General to rule that war against Iraq was legal without a second UN resolution–or even to reverse an earlier view that it was not? (British military leaders were reportedly demanding legal assurance only a few days before the war began.) Was Gun’s prosecution stopped to prevent Goldsmith’s doubts from coming to light? Is US and British spying on UN officials–weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Richard Butler have both come forward to say they were spied on as well–now standard procedure? And–the big question lurking behind all of the above–was the commitment of British troops in Iraq dictated not by Parliament or the intelligence services but by a deal sealed between Bush and Blair at their “war summit” at Camp David in September 2002?