Peter Goldsmith, the former attorney general, appeared before the Iraq inquiry today.
After two Foreign Office ministers yesterday said unequivocally that they believed the Iraq war was in contravention of international law, the focus was on Lord Goldsmith’s decision to endorse the war’s legality.
Rather predictably, the hearing wasn’t as explosive as many media commentators had hoped. Goldsmith dismissed the belief that he had changed his opinion under intense government pressure as “complete and utter nonsense”. He did, however, admit that Tony Blair had not found it “entirely welcome” when Goldsmith advised that the government must seek a UN resolution. Of Blair’s advanced discussions with Bush, he said: “That did put me in something of a difficult position.”
The crucial moment was in late February 2003, when Goldsmith went from warning that a second UN resolution must be obtained to saying that actually, it was fine to go ahead. The explanation he gave was rather mundane — simply that it was at this point the army required him to give a definitive “yes or no” answer:
They were entitled to have a clear view. They weren’t to be put in the position of being sent off, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t lawful.
There was no other way of anybody answering that question but me. It was my responsibility . . . I reached the view that, on balance, the better view was that it was lawful.
He admitted today that he had not wanted to stray too far from the fence, telling ministers at the time that the UK could still be taken to court for military action. Some of the papers have made much of his admission that he changed his mind — but really, we knew that already. As explanations go, this is rather a boring one (Paul Waugh reads between the lines to give an alternative account). And it shows, once more, that the main players are staying relentlessly on-message on the issues that count.
Goldsmith expressed frustration that certain documents — thought to relate to the legality issue — have not been declassified, a point that Sir John Chilcot interjected to agree with. It was another sign of the limitations of an inquiry that looks set to disappoint.