What they said in cabinet: the true story

What they said in the cabinet

The press were categorical. Tony Blair had "faced down cabinet opposition"; he had "issued his starkest warning yet that war with Iraq is on the way"; and Clare Short had fallen "into line" after a summons to No 10. On the eve of the Commons debate and the publication of the dossier on Iraqi rearmament, accounts of the emergency cabinet meeting in the Times, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph created the climate that Downing Street wanted: Blair was talking tough about his determination to stand up both to Saddam and to Labour doubters.

But the briefings that apparently gave rise to these stories have infuriated several ministers. "The version given to the press didn't in any way reflect what went on," one of them told me. "This is the return of lying spin."

According to several accounts of the 90-minute meeting, Blair went out of his way to try to allay concerns. He spoke of the need to revive the Middle East peace process and assured them that he was committed to going down the UN route. "It was an honest, decent appraisal," said one source. Nobody was slapped down or asked to fall into line. The Prime Minister didn't go round the room but invited interventions and listened attentively.

John Prescott, who had met his boss alone just before the meeting, spoke of the need to involve the UN at every turn. Clare Short, who had also met Blair earlier to discuss her very public warning against "a second Gulf war", gave a robust account of her reservations and urged Blair to distance himself from the Americans' call for regime change.

Several cabinet members were unreservedly supportive, such as Tessa Jowell, who drew a link (one that the security services have, after exhaustive efforts, failed to do) between the events of 11 September and Saddam's regime. Geoff Hoon, the hawkish Secretary of Defence, declared that any military response would be "proportionate". Estelle Morris, despite being in deep trouble over the A-level "fixing" controversy, surprised her colleagues by discussing all the various misgivings that had been expressed in recent months.

The most interesting account, according to those present, came from Gordon Brown. The Chancellor, who in recent weeks had been at pains to deny any difference with Blair over Iraq, gave a bleak tour d'horizon of global economic prospects. He warned his colleagues of the prospect of a prolonged slump that would follow a long period of crisis and military action, suggesting that markets would continue to suffer, oil prices become increasingly unstable and that economies which were grinding their way out of recession, such as Japan and the eurozone, would receive further setbacks.

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