Leading Article: A Profound Misjudgement with Terrible Results ; THE LEGALITY OF WAR

Article excerpt

The appearance of any government document labelled 'secret' attracts a particular fascination. The chequered history of the Attorney General's legal advice to the Prime Minister guaranteed that it would be treated as a special trophy when it finally saw the light of day. And so it proved. Its publication yesterday, in the last week of the election campaign, demonstrated just how much the questionable legality of the Iraq war was judged to be dragging down Labour's campaign.

Inevitably, given the extraordinary expectations, the full text of the legal advice was in some respects anti-climactic. The Attorney General was, indeed, equivocal in his assessment. His conclusion was that a second UN Security Council resolution expressly authorising war was highly desirable, but not absolutely essential. In his lawyerly way, he set out the case; it was up to the client " the Prime Minister " to decide what to do.

In this sense, Mr Blair was right to say that here was no 'smoking gun'. But he was wrong to dismiss it as a 'damp squib'. The advice contains a number of new, and embarrassing, revelations. They include incontrovertible evidence of the divisions that already existed between London and Washington on what would constitute a legal basis for war. They also show that one of the Government's greatest fears was that it could be challenged through the courts, perhaps successfully.

As significant as the advice itself, however, is the fact that it has finally been disclosed. Government legal advice is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, so there was no obligation to publish. Over the months, Mr Blair had fiercely refused demands for its release. The latest leaks, first of the main conclusions, then of the verbatim summary, left Downing Street with little choice but to publish the document in its entirety.

It is hard to believe that this is where the Prime Minister wanted his campaign to be six days before the election. …