The former government’s position is that the Cabinet discussed Iraq on many occasions before deciding in March 2003 that Britain would take part in the invasion. In this context, evidence that a decision was taken outside Cabinet and subsequently acted upon is highly significant, as is evidence that the objective of government policy was to support the US plan for regime change rather than tackling Iraq’s wmd. The question then arises to what extent the Cabinet – or individual ministers – were told about the policy.
The Butler Review, which commented on Blair’s style of “sofa government”, supports suggestions that the main decisions on Iraq were taken outside Cabinet. There is evidence that the Cabinet was nevertheless told that no decision had been taken. Former minister Clare Short has said that Tony Blair refused to have formal Cabinet discussions on the issue and that the review of Iraq policy in March 2002 was not shared with the Cabinet.
The Downing Street documents provide evidence that Blair and others decided to support the US policy of regime change while presenting the aim of government policy as securing Iraqi disarmament.
What was the Cabinet told about the policy in 2002?
The Inquiry will need to look at the minutes of Cabinet Meetings throughout 2002 to establish not just whether the Cabinet discussed Iraq policy but whether all members were kept fully informed about Blair’s intentions. The memoirs of a number of Cabinet ministers already provide some insight into this.
There were a number of Cabinet discussions on Iraq in February, March and April 2002.
At a Cabinet meeting on 28 February, Robin Cook asked if a full discussion could be held at a forthcoming meeting. This was agreed. According to Alastair Campbell’s published diaries Blair “said it was important to emphasise that nothing re Iraq was planned and that we were a long way off taking decisions.”
This discussion took place on 7 March. According to Robin Cook, this was “the last cabinet meeting at which a large number of ministers spoke up against the war”.
At a meeting on 11 April, Patricia Hewitt warned that invading Iraq would cause “a lot of tension among the Muslim communities in Britain”.
Was the March 2002 Iraq Options Paper shared with the Cabinet?
Although a version of Iraq options paper was produced by the Cabinet Office Defence and Overseas Secretariat on 6 March 2002, former Cabinet Secretary Richard Wilson told the Inquiry that it was not made available to Cabinet ministers for the discussion on 7 March.
Under normal circumstances, the Cabinet Office, whose role is traditionally to support the Cabinet rather than the prime minister, would make a draft of such an important paper available for such a discussion. This shows that Blair deliberately kept members of his Cabinet in the dark regarding his intentions.
The Downing Street memo records that a meeting on 23 July concluded that: “We should work on the assumption that the UK would take part in any military action. But we needed a fuller picture of US planning before we could take any firm decisions.” It is not clear that the whole Cabinet was told that the government was working on this assumption.
What was the Cabinet told about the intelligence?
It is not clear which Cabinet ministers had access to intelligence assessments about Iraq’s alleged wmd. Robin Cook has said that he was briefed by Joint Intelligence Committee chairman John Scarlett in February 2003. He concluded: “Not only did Saddam have no weapons of mass destruction in the real meaning of that phrase, neither did he have usable battlefield weapons.”
What was the Cabinet told about the legal advice?
Former attorney general Lord Goldsmith has admitted that he changed his opinion on the legality of the invasion more than once, but crucially between 7 and 17 March 2003. Goldsmith produced a long opinion on 7 March, which was highly equivocal on the legality of the war. Ten days later, Parliament and the Cabinet were given a much shorter opinion, attributed to Goldsmith, which stated unequivocally that the war would be legal. It does not appear all members of the Cabinet were told about Goldsmith’s earlier opinion. Read more
What was the basis for the Cabinet’s decision on 17 March 2003 to back the war?
Because the minutes of the Cabinet meeting of 17 March 2003 have been withheld by the government, it is not clear what the Cabinet was told about the intention to take part in military action. In particular, it remains unclear whether the Cabinet understood that regime change was the aim of the policy, rather than the means. Neither is it clear that the Cabinet was advised on the legal implications of military action whose aim was regime change.