Government knew ‘no leg to stand on’ legally to go to war in Iraq
Tony Blair and his ministers went to war in Iraq despite repeated warnings from senior Government advisers that they had “no leg to stand on” legally.

By Rosa Prince, Political Correspondent
Published: 10:00PM GMT 26 Jan 2010

During evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry into the war against Saddam, it emerged that Foreign Office lawyers were “unanimous” in their view that going to war without a United Nations mandate would be a “crime of aggression” likely to damage Britain’s standing in the world.

Sir Michael Wood, chief legal adviser at the Foreign Office, painted a vivid picture of how his team repeatedly intervened privately to correct ministers who were stating that a fresh UN resolution was not legally necessary, but their advice was ignored.

A secret letter was dramatically declassified midway through the hearings showed that Jack Straw, the then-foreign secretary, told his chief legal adviser that he was being “dogmatic” by warning that war would be illegal.

In what was described as a highly unusual move, Mr Straw wrote to Sir Michael, a renowned expert in international law, boasting that while home secretary he had ignored official legal advice “time and time again”.

The inquiry also heard that Lord Goldsmith, the then-Attorney General, changed his mind over the space of a week about the legality of the war after being ordered during a meeting chaired by Tony Blair to “reflect further”.

The process was described at the hearing by Elizabeth Wilmshurst, Sir Michael’s deputy, who resigned over the war, as “lamentable”,

It emerged that Lord Goldsmith was told to provide a “yes or no” answer on the eve of the Iraq invasion, before finally giving the view that war without a UN mandate would be legal after obtaining a written undertaking from Mr Blair that Saddam Hussein had failed to comply with weapons inspectors.

Months earlier, Lord Goldsmith had been so concerned about “Chinese whispers” which suggested he considered an invasion to be legal that he insisted it be put on the record that he was “pessimistic” about the prospects for arguing the case.

For the first time during the usually staid hearings, there was applause - as Mrs Wilmhurst finished her evidence - from the audience.

Margaret Beckett, Mr Straw's successor as foreign secretary, risked outrage by saying that Dr David Kelly, the government scientist who committed suicide after being accused of leaking secrets about the "sexing-up" of intelligence, would have agreed that Saddam Hussein was seeking to stockpile weapons.