Following a new row over the legality of the war against Iraq, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw vehemently defended the government's position in an interview with BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
John Humphrys: There's only one full week left in the election campaign... and it has changed.
What's been missing so far from the campaign has been the one big issue that many people thought could dominate the campaign from the beginning - Iraq.
Not just because of the war itself, but more because of what it said about Mr Blair and whether we were misled into going to war.
Well now Iraq has become a big election story. And that's because somebody leaked to the Mail on Sunday a document which raises important questions about Mr Blair's claims that the war was legal.
Prime ministers get their legal advice from the attorney general. He - Lord Goldsmith - did tell Mr Blair it was.
But what's at issue is whether he changed his mind under political pressure. He's always denied that. But Mr Blair has refused to publish the details of any earlier advice from Lord Goldsmith.
Now those details have been published. And they show that Lord Goldsmith entered a whole string of caveats.
When he answered a question in the House of Lords 10 days later he made no reference to any caveats.
And a few months ago Mr Blair said the advice "had been clear throughout".
Q: Indeed Mr Blair went further, Mr Straw, didn't he? And he said it was unequivocal - we now know that it wasn't. Why were we denied that information?
Mr Straw: That's not true John. The advice which the attorney general set out in the answer which he gave to the House of Lords on 17 March - the day before the key debate in the House Commons - was unequivocal and it set out that Resolution 1441 had effectively revived the authority for use of force under Security Council resolution 687 because of Iraq's clear further material breach in its refusal to comply with its disarmament obligations.
Can I say this - that many people now seem to think that the issue before the Security Council in the run up to the military action in March 2003 and the issue before the House of Commons at that time was an issue of intelligence or imminent threat.
It was not. And Lord Butler who conducted the most authoritative inquiry into all of this...
Q: ...into intelligence, not into the legality of the war - into intelligence. And I'm not asking about intelligence now Mr Straw, I'm asking you about questions surrounding the legality of the war and the way that was presented to the nation by the prime minister.
A: Yes, and allow me to finish please because Lord Butler also had access to Lord Goldsmith's - the attorney general's - legal advice.
First of all Lord Butler says at paragraph 470 - and it's very important since some people are trying to wind back to the dossier and think that the dossier was the issue...
Q: I'm not doing that - I'm asking you some fairly simple questions and I think you're now going to give me a great long history which won't allow me time to ask you other questions.
A: ...the part played by intelligence determining the validity of the use of force is limited. They then go on to say that they looked at the legal advice and the attorney general pointed out that it was lawful for military action to be taken because of Iraq's failure to comply. Now that was the issue...
Q: He had six areas of serious concern - we did not know about those six areas of legal concern. Mr Blair said it was unequivocal.
If I ask you, as a lawyer, for advice on something and you say to me, here are the six areas that I'm concerned about, but on balance I think this thing that you're proposing is legal, I would not describe that advice from you as unequivocal. Would you, as a lawyer?
A: Well, what I would describe as unequivocal is the clear view that the attorney general set out in the House of Lords on 17 March - of course - and Lord Butler, there's nothing particularly new about this, recites quite a lot of the issues in the paragraphs from 370 onwards of the Butler Report...
Q: Yes, but all Lord Goldsmith did was produce a 337-word written reply to the House of Lords - that's all.
Opponents want all of Lord Goldsmith's advice published
A: Yes, but hang on a second, Lord Butler also looked at the whole of the legal advice as well.
Q: I don't know why you're talking about Lord Butler - with great respect - I'm not talking about Lord Butler, I'm talking about what the attorney general said to the prime minister.
A: I was present John - you were not present at the Cabinet on 17 March. Lord Butler's [means Lord Goldsmith] advice to the Cabinet was very clear and Lord Butler's [means Lord Goldsmith] advice to the Cabinet was fully reflected in the view which he offered on the 17 March later in the day.
Q: Well no, there is a ministerial code of conduct that requires the full text of any legal advice to be made available to such cabinet meetings - no other papers were provided and that is the reality - I wasn't there but if you're going to tell me I'm wrong about that, I'd be very interested to hear it.
A: And also if you look at - I've dealt with this, keep your hair on - I dealt with this...
Q: ...it's a serious issue and I'm trying to be serious about it.
A: It's a very, very serious issue, all right - the attorney general came to his view, he offered the view, it was unequivocal - the prime minister was right. There have been four separate inquiries into this.
Q: No, there haven't.
A: Yes, excuse me a second...
Q: No there haven't.
A: Excuse me - excuse me a second - there have been four separate inquiries into allegations which all go to the issue of the character or conduct of the prime minister.
A: None of those have said for a second that the prime minister lied or deceived anybody and he did not.
Mr Blair says it was right to go to war
Q: Let me take you up on that. There had been indeed four inquiries - there was a review of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction - a very specific inquiry conducted by Lord Butler, there was a review by the intelligence and security committee, chaired by Ann Taylor, into Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, intelligence and assessment, there was a review by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee [on] the decision to go to war in Iraq, there was a review into the death of Dr David Kelly by Lord Hutton.
None of those reviews address the question that you have just raised - none of them.
A: With great respect - with great respect, the Butler inquiry looked at the legal advice and it did.
Q: It was a review of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction - I have it in front of me, foreign secretary.
A: Well hang on a second - yes good, ok, I also have it in front of me as well and it did look at the legal advice. Now it did not...
Q: That was not its remit.
A: Well, whether or not it was its remit, it did look at it - it didn't second-guess the legal advice. I just want to say this John. There were always, around the world and in the United Kingdom, two views about whether or not military action without a second resolution following 1441 was going to be justified.
Some people took the view that there had to be a second resolution - others and we in the United Kingdom were clear about this, although it was a matter for the attorney general, took the view that 1441 imposed very clear, further obligations upon Saddam Hussein and if he failed to meet those obligations then the authority for the use of force which was set out in a much earlier resolution - 687 and 678 - would be revived. Now I just say this...
Q: No, before you leave that, before you leave that - it was the view of the attorney general in that document on 7 March that it was the United Nations, not Mr Blair, not the United Kingdom government, that should rule on resolution questions. That was view that he expressed.
A: With great respect, I am not confirming the contents of what is alleged to have been...
Q: Well, then that makes this a very difficult conversation because you can put up any number of smokescreens can't you?
A: No, with great respect, I'm not confirming what is alleged to have been in a leaked document. Everybody knows...
Q: Are you denying it? Are you denying what's in this document?
A: ...all parties... absolutely not confirming it - all parties have accepted it...
Q: So what does that mean? Sorry - sorry, I'm not going to let you get away with that because if you're not denying it, I and the listeners to this programme are entitled to assume it's accurate aren't they?
A: Well, no they're not entitled to assume it's accurate either. But let me just deal with this issue because this is the answer to your question.
There was always a question - I've just said, it's scarcely a secret - as to whether or not 1441 revived the use of force set out in 687 and 678.
Now it happens - now allow me to make this point if I may John - that when this issue was before the House of Commons earlier in the Blair government in 1998, over the issue of Operation Desert Fox, which was a US/UK operation against Iraq - at that stage the Liberal Democrats took the view that there was no need even for a first resolution 1441, that 687 and 678 could be wrong...
Q: I'm really not concerned of what view the Liberal Democrats took anything, with great respect to them, I'm trying to talk to you about the attorney general and the advice he gave to the prime minister and the way the prime minister presented that advice to us - and you seem remarkably reluctant to address that question.
A: No, I'm certainly addressing it and the advice was very clearly set out in the attorney general's view that he put before the House of Lords, also put before the House of Commons on the 17 March and I supplemented that with a lengthy document - some seven pages - which set out the legal background to that decision so...
Q: Your own department - your own legal department in the Foreign Office thought that the war was illegal.
A: Well no, with great respect, some lawyers did and some lawyers didn't.
Q: But Mr Blair apparently didn't even read that advice.
A: Well some lawyers did and some lawyers...
Q: So why didn't Mr Blair, a) read it and b) reflect upon it?
A: Well with great respect, the fact that there was a disagreement amongst lawyers - internationally and nationally - was extremely well known, these issues were aired. What I'd just like to say to you John...
Q: Well, we'd rather assumed, if I may say so, we rather assumed that our prime minister reads the advice that is given - the comments that are made by his own Foreign Office - yes?
A: Well of course. Of course. Let me just make this point, all right, because I want to answer your question - I want to answer the question. The issue was this - did 1441 revive or not the authority for military action.
Q: No, that isn't the issue - I'm sorry but that isn't the issue.
A: Yes, I'm sorry John, it is, all right. That is...
Q: That's not what I'm asking you. You've made that point many, many, many times on this programme and I'm trying to move this forward because if we endlessly go back to 1441, we will never move it forward and I suspect that's the reason why you're not addressing it.
A: No because 1441 is at the heart of this and that is why you're endlessly trying not to go back to 1441.
Q: No it isn't. It is not at the heart of it - at the heart of this is the advice that the prime minister got and why he did not tell us that there were all these caveats - six different caveats and that is why now we realise of course he didn't publish that information from the attorney general - that document from the attorney general.
A: The attorney general's advice was never going to be published whatever it said because attorney generals' advice is never published and you know that.
Q: No - there is precedent for it.
A: Very, very limited and very specific.
Q: But there is precedent for it and this could hardly be a more important matter - why we went to war.
A: ...and the Butler committee made it. What indeed has often not been the case, is that the attorney general's view, based on his advice, has often not been published.
In this particular case, the attorney general took the view that he ought to make clear a summary of his position and indeed did that and that was set out very categorically.
The attorney general has repeated on many, many occasions - many, many occasions - that that view set out in the House of Lords on the 17 March was indeed an accurate reflection of his opinion and that remains his view.
Now I also just want to say this because some of those who argue that the legal advice was somehow wrong, are basically trying to say that the war was not justified.
Q: I'm not putting that point to you, Mr Straw. I am not asking you whether the advice was right or wrong.
A: Oh really?
Q: No, I am not.
A: What are you asking?
Q: I am not asking that. What I'm asking you is why it was that the attorney general drew up this document with a whole series of important caveats and yet when the prime minister told us about the advice he had received, he said it was unequivocal and it manifestly was not unequivocal.
A: No, that's not right.
Q: Now, let me add one question to that as well, why did John Bellinger, the legal adviser to the White House, say in February of 2003, that the attorney general had been troubled - we had trouble with your attorney, we got him there eventually. That is to say, we got him there on the question of the legality of the war. Why did he say that?
A: I've no idea why he said that - you'll have to ask Mr Bellinger that, all right - I wasn't present at any conversation about that.
Q: Well why do you think he might have said it?
A: Well I'm not going to speculate.
Q: It's a pretty damning comment isn't it?
A: What I can tell you John, is this - if you'll just allow me the time to tell you this. When 1441 was passed, it did revive 678 and 687. There are some people - there was a debate about this - who said we have to have a second resolution.
I made it clear to the House of Commons on 25 November 2002 that we didn't, that I was one of those people - a few people - who was involved in the negotiation of 1441. The French had put forward a proposal for a second resolution.
Q: You have told us this many times Mr Straw.
A: Well I'm telling you again in order everybody understands why the attorney general was able to come to a view which was unequivocal about the use of force. Then what happened was we hoped very much however that we could get a second resolution in order to secure a consensus in the Security Council.
We also hoped that that in itself would not be necessary because Iraq would come fully into compliance with its disarmament obligations.
Now what's interesting, at all those Security Council meetings that I attended in January, February and March of 2003, virtually no one around the table was arguing that Iraq did not pose a threat to international peace and security because it clearly did - because of its possession of weapons of mass destruction - that was not an issue nor was anybody arguing at that final security council meeting on the 7 March, that Iraq was not fully compliant with its disarmament obligations.
The issue was, was it an appropriate stage to take military action.
Some said that containment might work but the truth was, containment had fallen apart and we therefore decided to take military action. And where we have now got to is a far better Iraq. And those who oppose the war - and I understand why they do that - need to understand too that much good has come from it - as the deputy prime minister of Iraq, Barham Saleh has said.
Q: We can have a very long discussion about that - we've no time for that. One more question. Tony Blair said last week, I don't believe we had any option but to disclose the name of Dr David Kelly - that is what he said last week to Jeremy Paxman. On 22 July 2003, he said, I did not authorise the leaking of the name of David Kelly. Can you reconcile those two statements?
A: Well, yes I can because in one case he uses the first person singular and in the other case he uses the first person.
Q: Ah, oh right, so when he says I... he doesn't speak for the government then - there is no collective government responsibility is there?
A: Well, with great respect, this issue was examined in very, very great detail by the Hutton inquiry - that was absolutely central.
Q: I beg your pardon - the Hutton inquiry did not have that comment from Tony Blair that Jeremy Paxman got last week.
A: Well with great respect, they had evidence from the prime minister which I think before a very senior high court judge is rather better even than a question from Mr Jeremy Paxman - he's a man who I greatly admire and is a very fine interviewer.
Q: It's not the Paxman question, it's the Blair answer - I don't believe we had any option but to disclose his name. He had said previously, I did not authorise the leak. So we're now invited to believe, are we, that there is a difference between I and we?
When I assumed - I believed that when the prime minister speaks, he speaks on behalf of his government. Whether he says I or we is hardly relevant is it?
A: Well, the prime minister didn't, as far as I know, for a second authorise the disclosure of that name. The matter was examined in very, very great detail by Lord Hutton and he cleared the prime minister of any impropriety and that in itself is very, very clear as well.