Gordon Brown at the Iraq Inquiry: the unanswered killer question at last

The prime minister’s brave decision to give evidence at the Iraq Inquiry on 5 March provided the opportunity for the central question about the Iraq war to be put bluntly and persistently to the second most senior member of the Blair government that took us to war, enabling us all to judge the adequacy or lack of it of Mr Brown’s response.  The question, put (predictably) by Sir Roderic Lyne, went like a bullet to the heart of the matter:

You [Gordon Brown] stressed right throughout this morning the importance to you of maintaining international order and international institutions in the world that we now live in. But we were in a situation, you as a Cabinet, were in a situation, of having to go to the House of Commons and ask them to support something for which we had not got the support of the United Nations Security Council? Wouldn’t it have been much better if we had been able to prolong the diplomacy until such time as we had got the support of the Security Council, thereby strengthening international institutions?

This followed a succession of replies by the prime minister in which he had repeatedly stressed that he, like the rest of the Cabinet in 2003 in the run-up to the war, had persisted right to the end in hoping that the problem of Iraqi defiance of the UN and of international law could be resolved by peaceful diplomacy (“the UN route”), thus averting the need for the use of force.  Gordon Brown had insisted that it was only at the last minute that it had become clear that diplomacy and the UN route had definitively failed, making it inevitable that the UK and US would have to go to war.

At this point Lyne put his lethal question.  The resulting exchange (in the format of the Inquiry’s website’s transcript, starting at page 57) is worth reading in full; indeed it’s worth saving to your hard disk, printing out, framing, and hanging above your desk:

17 SIR RODERIC LYNE: You stressed right throughout this
18 morning the importance to you of maintaining
19 international order and international institutions in
20 the world that we now live in. But we were in
21 a situation, you as a Cabinet, were in a situation, of
22 having to go to the House of Commons and ask them to
23 support something for which we had not got the support
24 of the United Nations Security Council?
25 Wouldn’t it have been much better if we had been


1 able to prolong the diplomacy until such time as we had
2 got the support of the Security Council, thereby
3 strengthening international institutions?

4 RT HON GORDON BROWN MP: If there had been any chance that
5 the Security Council would have been prepared to come to
6 a decision based on its merits, within a few weeks’
7 time, I would have supported that, but countries had
8 made it clear that, irrespective of the merits, they
9 were determined not to enforce the will of the
10 international community.

11 SIR RODERIC LYNE: Which countries?

12 RT HON GORDON BROWN MP: A number of countries were making
13 it clear that, irrespective of what actually the results
14 of the investigation were, that although the 1441 had
15 said that they were prepared to consider all necessary
16 measures —

17 SIR RODERIC LYNE: But which countries said that?

18 RT HON GORDON BROWN MP: — they wouldn’t be prepared to do
19 so.

20 SIR RODERIC LYNE: Which countries said that?

21 RT HON GORDON BROWN MP: I think it was being made clear by
22 a number of countries in the region, and I think France
23 and Germany was making that clear also.

24 SIR RODERIC LYNE: Germany wasn’t on the Security Council.
25 Are you really referring to France here?


1 RT HON GORDON BROWN MP: Statements were made by
2 President Chirac which were very clear that he was not
3 prepared to support military action.

4 SIR RODERIC LYNE: At that time.

5 RT HON GORDON BROWN MP: He was not prepared to support
6 military action and could give no indication that there
7 was a time when he would support military action.

8 SIR RODERIC LYNE: After he made his statement, didn’t the
9 French Government immediately contact Number 10, the
10 Foreign Office, the British Embassy in Paris to say that
11 the British Government was not interpreting his
12 statement in an accurate way?

13 RT HON GORDON BROWN MP: That may have happened, but, you
14 know, I wasn’t the Foreign Secretary or the
15 Prime Minister. The contacts that would be had with the
16 French would be through them.
17 What I knew is that there was very little chance on
18 our assessment that the diplomatic route could lead to
19 success if a number of countries were not in themselves
20 willing to consider the action that would flow from
21 that.
22 Look, I think you have got to understand — and
23 I know the Committee will want to look at this — we are
24 at the beginning of a new phase of the world community.
25 We were in a post-Cold War phase, where the tensions


1 between Russia and America are not the paradigm within
2 which people see what they should do as individual
3 states around the world.

Note the way Sir Rod Lyne ruthlessly forces the prime minister to admit that the crucial decision to abandon diplomacy, the UN route, and the UN weapons inspection, when the inspectors and the majority of members of the Security Council were asking for a few more weeks to enable the inspection to finish its work and reach a conclusion, the decision to give up on all that depended on the famous television interview given by Jacques Chirac, the then French President. British ministers chose perversely to misinterpret that interview as meaning that even if the inspectors reported that they had found WMD whose existence the Iraqis had denied, or that the Iraqis had definitively failed to cooperate with them, France would still use its veto to prevent any decision by the Security Council authorising the use of force.  In fact, as even the most superificial scrutiny of the transcript of the Chirac interview confirms, Chirac said the opposite:  that France was not a pacifist nation, and if Iraq was found at some point in the future to be in definite and irreversible further material breach of its obligations, France would accept the need for the use of force.  Sir Roderic Lyne here injects the new and even more lethal information that when British ministers decided to blame their decision to abandon the UN process and go to war on their misreading of the Chirac interview, the French government had urgently sought to tell them, in Paris and in London, that they were misinterpreting the interview.  Our ministers, however, ignored that crucial warning and have continued to this day — for example even in Gordon Brown’s testimony to Chilcot last week — to misinterpret the Chirac interview as in effect the sole justification for their disastrous, premature, reckless and criminal decision to go to war.

For a detailed analysis of what President Chirac actually said in his television interview, including key quotations from it, please see my exchange with Professor Geoffrey Warner in comments on an earlier post, at http://www.barder.com/2300#comment-91331.   It’s reassuring to be able to see from Sir R Lyne’s questioning that the Chilcot Inquiry is fully familiar with the rights and wrongs of this issue:  but it’s dismaying that our prime minister continues, at this late stage, to trot out this by now hopelessly discredited argument as the principal basis for the  fatal decision of the government of which he was a senior member to abandon diplomacy and resort to force, a decision which Gordon Brown is obliged to say he supported and that even now he continues to think was right.  But of course the reality is that he can’t say anything else.

One postscript:  none of the copious media coverage that I have seen picked up the exchanges quoted above as central to the whole debate on the rights and wrongs of the Iraq war.  No commentator that I’m aware of mentioned it as important or even interesting.  One account even sneered at the Chilcot team for its lack of forensic clout as demonstrated by its failure to follow up  the prime minister’s dodgier replies.  The Guardian editorial on the following day said:

Mr Brown began with an unambiguous declaration that the Iraq war was the right policy, embarked on for the right reasons. He then produced an answer for every question that the panel asked, not least the potentially tricky ones about defence spending during Mr Brown’s Treasury years.

Did the Guardian really think that what Mr Brown said in reply to Sir Rod Lyne’s questions quoted earlier amounted to answers?

The Sun-style headline that should have preceded a full account of Sir Roderic’s butchery of our head of government in any self-respecting newspaper would have consisted of one word:  “Gotcha!”


4 Responses

  1. Jiulie Beverly says:

    Thank you for this. I, for one, am heartened that you are continuing to draw attention to what I believe was one of the most dishonest acts of the Blair government in the run up to the war in Iraq.

    As regards transcripts of the Chirac interview they are still available at:
    http://www.elysee.fr/elysee/elysee.fr/francais/interventions/interviews_articles_de_presse_et_interventions_televisees./2003/mars/interview_televisee_de_m_jacques_chirac_president_de_la_republique.935.html (in French) and: http://special.diplomatie.gouv.fr/article_gb91.html (in English)

    There was at least one attempt at the time to provide an accurate account of President Chirac’s remarks in a Guardian leader on 15th March (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/mar/15/france.politics) :

    The latest spate of British government and media vilification of France over Iraq is unjustified and distasteful. It is damaging to Britain'(s own wider interests. It is also less than totally honest. One remark by President Jacques Chirac is at the centre of this storm – his apparent vow, in a television interview last Monday, to veto a second UN resolution “whatever the circumstances”. Downing Street said Mr Chirac had “poisoned” the diplomatic process. The foreign secretary, Jack Straw, told this newspaper yesterday that this “extraordinary” intervention has made war more likely. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2003/mar/14/uk.iraq1)
    This is a very serious charge. The unmistakable implication is that if the UN refuses to back military action at this time and Britain goes to war regardless, France will somehow be to blame. Without bothering to inquire further, British and American media, notably the Murdoch-owned press, have gleefully taken the government’s cue. Yet as a matter of fact, as opposed to a matter of political and chauvinist expediency, the charge levelled at Mr Chirac is unfounded. What he actually said, according to the transcript, is as follows: “My position is that, regardless of the circumstances, France will vote ‘no’ because she considers this evening that there are no grounds for waging war in order to achieve the goal we have set ourselves, that is to say, to disarm Iraq.”
    The key words here are “this evening”. What Mr Chirac clearly meant was that, in circumstances pertaining at that moment in time, France would use its veto. He did not say that would be the case at all times; and indeed, since he spoke, several official statements have made it plain that France is anxious to preserve UN unity and will explore “all opportunities” for compromise. That was the import, too, of his telephone conversation yesterday with Tony Blair. To the extent that Mr Chirac’s meaning could have been misinterpreted, he made a tactical mistake. But the overall French position, that war may be supportable but only as a last resort, is not objectively in doubt.
    Why Mr Straw and others appear deliberately and provocatively to misunderstand it is a more important question. So what is the answer? Britain and the US seem determined to portray France’s policy as unreasonable to support Tony Blair’s face-saving definition of an “unreasonable veto”. Fearing the loss of the war-enabling second resolution for many reasons, but mainly because the vast majority of UN member states regards it as premature and unnecessary, they conspire to pin the blame for their own chronic miscalculations on France. It is fair to suspect Mr Chirac’s deeper motives. But it is dishonest to try to scapegoat France’s present, logical and in many ways admirable stance on continued inspections for an avoidable crisis that is essentially one made in America.
    This blame-game is self-defeating. It jeopardises Britain’s wider, constant interest in a creative partnership with France, especially in key areas like defence, terrorism, immigration and EU enlargement and reform. It obscures the crucial issue of future US-Europe relations. If the government really feels a need to point the finger, it should look across the Atlantic – or in the mirror.

    Reactions in France at the time were described in an article, published in the Guardian on March 20th 2003 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/mar/20/politics.iraq), which includes quotations from three major French newspapers:

    French newspapers yesterday complained that the British pro-war camp was guilty of “shameful distortion” of France’s position on the second UN resolution. “Chirac, Blair’s scapegoat,” was the headline in an outraged Liberation, which said Mr Blair was plainly “criticising his neighbour to silence his critics”.
    “The American president, out of frustration, and the British prime minister, out of a pathetic need to justify himself, are fanning the latent Francophobia of their electorates,” the paper said in its editorial yesterday. “By making Paris the scapegoat for their failures, they hope to dodge some embarrassing questions on the eve of a war that they will wage alone against (almost) everyone, and having placed themselves beyond international law.”
    Le Figaro said Britain would “doubtless be weakened for a very long time” by the hole it had dug for itself over Iraq, while Le Monde said that Mr Blair had once again “decided to dump on France the main bulk of the responsibility for his own diplomatic failure”. In a stinging editorial, France’s newspaper of record said Mr Blair’s efforts to win a majority for a second resolution had failed and that “contrary to the internationalist principles he has avowed since the start”, the war would now begin without specific UN authorisation.

    A number of people have indicated that the attack on France for the so-called “failure of diplomacy”, was not based on a misunderstanding of what Chirac had said but was, in fact, deliberate government policy. Robin Cook, quoting Gordon Brown in the Cabinet meeting on 13.03.03, was among the first:

    When we began, Gordon launched a long and passionate statement of support for Tony’s strategy. The contribution was rather marred by an outspoken attack on France: ‘the message that must go out from this Cabinet is that we pin the blame on France for its isolated refusal to agree in the Security Council’. (The Point of Departure, 2003, p318-9)

    and there is further confirmation in Clare Short’s account of the same Cabinet meeting:

    GB spoke animatedly about what France was saying – no to everything. Jack Straw also anti France. […]
    What had happened was that John Prescott had brought Tony Blair and Gordon Brown together for dinner and Gordon had agreed to get involved and help Blair. It is also now clear that they had agreed the best way forward was to blame the French. (An Honourable Deception?, 2004, p182,)

    More evidence emerged in 2007 from Sir Stephen Wall’s (former chief policy adviser to Tony Blair) account of events in March 2003:

    ‘I recall the moment,’ Wall says in the documentary (Blair: The Inside Story), ‘because I happened to be in the corridor in Number 10 when he and Alastair Campbell were walking down the corridor and they decided effectively to play the anti-French card. They’d been given an opportunity to do so because President Chirac had given a broadcast interview the previous day in which he said that, as of that moment, France would veto a resolution authorising war.’ (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2007/feb/25/iraq.france )

    Chirac, however, reiterated his position in an interview for CBS and CNN on 16.03.03:

    La France s’était inscrite dès le départ dans un processus dont elle pensait qu’il pouvait réussir. C’était celui de la résolution 1441. Ce processus ne retenait pas l’hypothèse d’une guerre et, donc, la France est restée dans sa logique, dans sa conception des choses. C’est-à-dire que l’on peut obtenir par la voie des inspections le désarmement de l’Iraq. Voilà pourquoi nous avons la position qui est aujourd’hui la nôtre et pourquoi nous refusons aujourd’hui, je dis bien aujourd’hui, la perspective de la guerre.

    France, from the very beginning, had agreed to a process she felt could be successful: that of UNSCR 1441. That process didn’t embrace the possibility of war and so France has stuck to her way of seeing things, i.e. that we can achieve Iraq’s disarmament through inspections. That is why we have the position we have today and why we are also refusing today, and I mean today, the prospect of war.
    (transcript in French: http://www.elysee.fr/elysee/elysee.fr/francais_archives/interventions/interviews_articles_de_presse_et_interventions_televisees/2003/mars/interview_du_president_de_la_republique_aux_televisions_americaines_cbs_et_cnn.3564.html and in English: http://www.ambafrance-uk.org/Interview-given-by-M-Jacques,4920.html)

    and again on 18.03.03:

    L’Iraq ne représente pas aujourd’hui une menace immédiate telle qu’elle justifie une guerre immédiate. La France en appelle à la responsabilité de chacun pour que la légalité internationale soit respectée. Elle appelle à préserver l’unité du Conseil de Sécurité en restant dans le cadre fixé par la résolution 1441.
    S’affranchir de la légitimité des Nations Unies, privilégier la force sur le droit, ce serait prendre une lourde responsabilité.

    Iraq does not today present an immediate threat warranting an immediate war. France appeals to everyone to act responsibly to ensure the respect of international legality. It appeals to them to maintain the Security Council’s unity by staying within the framework set by UNSCR 1441.
    To act outside the authority of the United Nations, to prefer the use of force to compliance with the law, would incur a heavy responsibility
    transcript in French: http://www.elysee.fr/elysee/elysee.fr/francais_archives/interventions/discours_et_declarations/2003/mars/declaration_du_president_de_la_republique_sur_l_iraq.1763.html and in English: http://www.ambafrance-uk.org/Declaration-on-Iraq-by-M-Jacques.html )

    By 18.03.03 there could no longer be any possibility of a genuine misunderstanding. Chirac himself had spoken with Blair on 14.03.03 in an attempt to clarify the situation. However, the motion, passed by the House of Commons on 18.03.2003, nonetheless, blamed one of the Permanent Members of the Security Council for the failure to obtain a second Resolution:

    The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): I beg to move, […]
    That this House notes its decisions of 25th November 2002 and 26th February 2003 to endorse UN Security Council Resolution 1441; […] despite sustained diplomatic effort by Her Majesty’s Government it has not proved possible to secure a second Resolution in the UN because one Permanent Member of the Security Council made plain in public its intention to use its veto whatever the circumstances;

    Later in his speech, Tony Blair, as part of his argument for going to war, repeated the allegation and named France as the country:

    Column 764
    […] Last Monday, we were getting very close with it. We very nearly had the majority agreement. If I might, I should particularly like to thank the President of Chile for the constructive way in which he approached this issue.
    Yes, there were debates about the length of the ultimatum, but the basic construct was gathering support. Then, on Monday night, France said that it would veto a second resolution, whatever the circumstances.

    France did make a formal protest on 19.03.03:

    This morning, the Minister of Foreign Affairs called his British opposite number, Mr Jack Straw, to tell him that the French authorities were shocked and saddened by what members of the British government said during the recent debates in the House of Commons.
    We can well understand the internal pressure being exerted on the British government. But the words used are not worthy of a country which is both a friend and a European partner. This presentation of events is inconsistent with the facts and will mislead no one. (http://www.ambafrance-uk.org/France-UK-Statement-by-the.html )

    A few weeks ago, Philippe Marliere, a lecturer in French Politics at UCL, in an article commenting on Lord Goldsmith’s evidence to the Chilcot inquiry and what he describes as “Britain’s voluntary distortion of the French position” concluded that

    “Lord Goldsmith’s testimony emphasised not only how quick the British government was to join in the French-bashing before the war, but how keen it appears to revive it now”.http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jan/28/france-iraq-war-chilcot-goldsmith

    For Jack Straw, Jonathan Powell, Alastair Campbell, Lord Goldsmith, Sir Jeremy Greenstock and now Gordon Brown to continue to peddle the same untruth today is deeply disturbing and it is indeed baffling that the issue is not being investigated more thoroughly by the media.

    Brian writes: I am most grateful for this masterly rehearsal of the facts of this sordid affair. It has been deeply discreditable to seek to put the blame for the decision to go to war, prematurely and without Security Council authority as required by international law, on one of our closest and most influential partners and allies. It’s all too clear that President Chirac’s interview was merely a pretext. Messrs Blair, Brown and Straw and the rest of a compliant Cabinet (with but one exception) took us into an illegal war when they did because the Americans ran out of patience, and decided to go ahead without waiting for the inspectors to finish their work or for the Security Council to be satisfied that the use of force had become justified and inevitable. And Britain tamely followed suit.

  2. Oliver Miles says:

    On the specific issue of the French position, I felt at the time that the French “unreasonable veto” was a godsend for Blair/Campbell, so much so that I half suspected that the French did it deliberately (so that the war could go ahead, but France would be in the clear). Unworthy!
    More generally, I was very surprised that the media coverage of Gordon Brown’s evidence generally, at least immediately after he gave it, seemed to conclude that he had put up a good performance. What struck me, at least in his exchanges with Sir Roderick Lyne, was his refusal to answer the questions. Was he shown the important options paper produced by the Cabinet Office in March 2002, and if he wasn’t, shouldn’t he have been (Pages 27-29 of the transcript)? Was there in March 2003 a current threat of aggression from Iraq (pages 31-34)? Was he told the gist of what Tony Blair had said to George Bush about “pledging support” (pages 35-38)? Each question was repeated two or three times, producing only more waffle from the Prime Minister. It was only in the last of the three that Lyne’s diplomatic style slipped to the point where he said “I’m just asking for a yes or no answer”.
    The important point, I suppose, is what use the committee will make of this in their report, and that remains to be seen.

    Brian writes: Thank you, Oliver. I agree that the Inquiry never got satisfactory answers to many of their key questions to Gordon Brown. But in a way that’s even more revealing than self-exculpatory answers would have been. I think it’s clear from the questioing that the Chilcot team know all that they need to know about what happened and it’s no necessary part of their job to confront their witnesses with damning accusations beyond what they need to establish the facts, or to try to extort confessions from them. Of course it’s to be hoped that they will be fearlessly frank in stating their conclusions in their eventual report. But even if they succumb to the likely pressures to fudge them a little, the damning truths are virtually all there by now, on the public record, in the transcripts and video records of the witnesses’ testimonies — with, probably, more to come when the Inquiry publishes more of the documents they have obtained. I don’t think that with all this available evidence, history will be kind or forgiving about the misbegotten misadventure that was Iraq.

  3. John Miles says:

    For family reasons – better half’s birthday, daughter back home – I wasn’t able to follow last Friday’s procedings very closely.
    I found the transcript incredibly turgid and difficult to read, so I’m very grateful to you for highlighting what are almost cerainly its most important and interesting points.

    My impression is that in the run-up to the invasion Mr Brown did little more than uncritically rubber-stamp Mr Blair’s decisions; and that now he defends himself by a plethora of rhetoric, aka waffle, and by hardly ever using one word where forty five will do.
    A couple of questions:

    Jiulie Beverly includes Jeremy Greenstock in the disreputable gang who continue to peddle the lie about President Chirac and his veto.
    Is this really true?
    Chapter and verse?

    Mr Brown bangs on about “the post-Cold War world.”
    What’s that to do with the price of herring?

    Brian writes: Good questions, John, as usual. 

  4. Stephen Plowden says:

    Ken Blyth has kindly forwarded me your email
    What your say about Brown and Chirac is spot on ! I have been banging on about this since Chirac’s interview. I think I am the member of the puiblic who alerted Clare Short to the misrepresentation (see her article in the  NS in June 2003).  Below is a letter I sent to Chilcot in January. What I wd like to see now is Blair and straw impeached or at least censured by the HoC.  Perhaps we can all work together on this .
    Stephen Plowden

    Sir John Chilcot GCB
    Chair, The Iraq Inquiry
    35 Great Smith Street
    London SW1P 3BQ 25 January 2010

    Dear Sir John
    Jack Straw’s evidence

    It was clear before Jack Straw gave evidence to your Inquiry last week that the British Government misinterpreted the statements that President Chirac made in his television interview of 10 March 2003, and that this misinterpretation played an important part in the Government’s arguments for going to war. However, Mr Straw’s evidence strengthens the case for thinking that there was something wilful about this misinterpretation. It also provides some grounds for thinking that it may have been crucial in changing the mood in the House of Commons from anti-war to pro-war.
    It seems to me important for the Inquiry to find out more about what changed the mood in the House of Commons, since if it is indeed true that MPs changed their minds because they were misled, that would be very serious, especially if they were misled deliberately. Mr Straw told you that the whips were closely monitoring opinion in the House in the critical time leading up to the debate held on 18 March. May I suggest that the Inquiry should invite the whips concerned, and perhaps some other MPs as well, to tell you more about what influenced opinion in Parliament?
    Some notes amplifying these points are attached.
    Yours sincerely
    Stephen Plowden

    President Chirac’s position as outlined in his television interview of 10 March 2003

    President Chirac made his position very clear at the beginning of the interview. Iraq probably had weapons of mass destruction and it was essential to get rid of them. The UN inspectors should be given the few months they had asked for to achieve disarmament by peaceful means. If, however, they reported back that Iraq was not cooperating, and that therefore they could not do their job, “. . . dans ce cas, naturellement, hélas, la guerre deviendrait inévitable. Elle ne l’est pas aujourd’hui”.
    Much later in the interview, President Chirac made the remark on which the British Government relied for its claim that France would not sanction military action in any circumstances.

    Ma position, c’est que, quelles que soient les circonstances, la France votera non parce qu’elle considère ce soir qu’il n’y a pas lieu de faire une guerre pour atteindre l’objectif que nous nous sommes fixé, c’est-à-dire le désarmement de l’Iraq.

    Does this contradict President Chirac’s earlier statements? It is clear from the context that it does not. The interviewers asked what the President would do if a second resolution, containing an ultimatum with a date after which, assuming non-compliance, military action would be taken, was presented to the Security Council at that time. Would France exercise its veto? The President first replied that he did not think that the question of a veto would arise, because the resolution would probably not attract the nine votes in the Security Council needed for it to pass. However, the point was put to him again, what if some countries were persuaded to change their minds, so that there were nine votes in favour? It was to that question that he made the reply quoted above. Whatever the circumstances, that is, whether the resolution did or did not attract nine favourable votes, France would vote against it. Clearly this did not mean that France would oppose military action in any circumstances whatever.
    Did the British Government deliberately misrepresent the French position?

    It seems to me that President Chirac stated his position so clearly and cogently that any misunderstanding of it must be wilful. But there are other reasons for thinking so.
    This is what Tony Blair told the House of Commons about the French position on 18 March 2003:

    Those on the Security Council opposed to us say that they want Saddam to disarm, but they will not countenance any new resolution that authorises force in the event of non-compliance. That is their position—no to any ultimatum and no to any resolution that stipulates that failure to comply will lead to military action. So we must demand that Saddam disarms, but relinquish any concept of a threat if he does not (Hansard Column 764).

    A little later he said:

    But the moment we proposed the benchmarks and canvassed support for an ultimatum, there was an immediate recourse to the language of the veto. The choice was not action now or postponement of action; the choice was action or no action at all.

    The following extract comes from a press briefing given by the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman on 19 March 2003.

    He said that there was no use pretending that there weren’t serious differences of view between us and the French Government in relation to Resolution 1441. Clearly there were. We did not believe that the international community could walk away from the logic of 1441. If people were not prepared to accept any ultimatum or Resolution which could lead to the authorisation of the use of force, it was clear that we would not see disarmament. In our view, it made no sense to accept that it was the threat of force which had allowed the weapons inspectors into Iraq but then adopt the position that it shouldn’t be used.

    These remarks seem to me to constitute deliberate misrepresentation. So was the way that John Prescott quoted President Chirac’s TV interview to the television cameras in Downing Street after a Cabinet meeting a day or two before Mr Blair’s speech in the House of Commons. (I referred to these remarks of Mr Prescott’s in my submission to the Inquiry of 29 September 2009. I hope the Inquiry has been able to find a transcript of them.)
    Suppose that the British Government had been in some doubt about what President Chirac had meant, would they not have sought urgent clarification? When Sir Roderic Lyne asked Mr Straw that in the hearing on 21 January, Mr Straw could not remember whether he had any further contact with the French Foreign Minister on this point, but in any case he suggested that no clarification was required. ‘I don’t think there is any ambiguity about “quelles que soient les circonstances”. You know, it means what it says.’ In paragraph 56 of his memorandum to the Inquiry, written not in the heat of the tumultuous days of March 2003 but years later, Mr Straw says:

    the situation effectively became terminal once President Chirac had announced on television on 10 March that “whatever the circumstances, France will veto” [a second resolution].

    In his oral evidence to the Inquiry, Mr Straw seemed to suggest that President Chirac’s use of the term “ce soir” in the statement quoted above somehow supported his (Mr Straw’s) interpretation of it. There is no reason to think so. The terms “ce soir” and “aujourd’hui” were used frequently and interchangeably both by President Chirac and by the interviewers throughout the interview. It was the interviewers rather than President Chirac who used them first. If one looks carefully at the various occasions on which these terms were used, it is clear what was meant by them. They were used to refer to the actual situation that existed on 10 March and to distinguish it from hypothetical situations that might arise in the future.

    To what extent were MPs influenced by what the Government said or failed to say about the French position?

    In his oral evidence (page 110 of the uncorrected transcript), Mr Straw told the Inquiry about the shifts in opinion in March 2003.

    . . . there was a paradox that, as the international climate moved one way [against war], to a degree certainly the Parliamentary climate moved the other way, and whilst at the beginning of March I judged that we would not have got a resolution through the House of Commons, because of the debates in the Security Council with President Chirac and then the evident effort that we made for the second resolution, the support in the House of Commons started to change and it was something that the whips were measuring day by day.

    This is what one MP said in the debate on 18 March (Hansard Column 764)

    Hugh Bayley (City of York): Will my right hon. Friend give way?
    The Prime Minister: Very well.
    Hugh Bayley: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I took the view that Britain should not engage in military action without a second resolution, but the decision of some members of the Security Council to back away from the commitment that they gave in November to enforce resolution 1441 has made me change my mind. Does my right hon. Friend agree that France’s decision to use the veto against any further Security Council resolution has, in effect, disarmed the UN instead of disarming Iraq?

    The following paragraph comes from an article that Clare Short wrote in the New Statesman of 9 June 2003.

    When Blair made his final push to keep me in the government, he promised a full UN mandate for reconstruction and was also adamant that the French president, Jacques Chirac, had already made clear that he would veto any second resolution. He said he could have got more time for Blix through a Chilean compromise formula – allowing some more time for Saddam to comply – if the French had not taken this position. I accepted this account, but was later sent by a member of the public an English translation of the transcript of Chirac’s interview with French TV on 10 March. This made clear that France would indeed vote against any resolution that truncated the Blix process or allowed the US/UK to declare war without specific UN authority. But Chirac also said that if, after a few months, the inspectors came to the Security Council and said they were unable to guarantee Iraq’s disarmament, “in that case it will be for the Security Council and it alone to decide the right thing to do. But in that case, of course, regrettably, the war would become inevitable. It isn’t today.”

    None of this is conclusive, but it does suggest that if MPs had been better informed about the French position, the shift in Parliamentary opinion that occurred in March 2003 might not have occurred, and the House of Commons might not have voted for war on 18 March. If it is true that MPs voted for war only because of their imperfect understanding of the French position, then that is clearly a very serious matter, especially if they were deliberately misled. I hope, therefore, that the Inquiry will explore with the MPs who were the party whips at the time, and perhaps with some other MPs as well, what MPs did know and understand about the French position, and how important this issue was in determining the way they voted.
    Brian writes: Thank you for this valuable additional evidence of the effects of the systematic misrepresentation of the French position by UK ministers, both at the time of the attack on Iraq and even now in ministerial testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry. (I had a letter in The Times making the same point at the time, acknowledging the accuracy of Clare Short’s correction.) I think it’s crystal clear from some of Sir Roderic Lyne’s questioning of the prime minister that he, and presumably his Chilcot Inquiry colleagues, have got the message. In my post above I quoted (among other things) the following very significant exchange between Sir Roderic and Gordon Brown:

    SIR RODERIC LYNE: After he made his statement, didn’t the French Government immediately contact Number 10, the Foreign Office, the British Embassy in Paris to say that the British Government was not interpreting his [President Chirac’s] statement in an accurate way?

    RT HON GORDON BROWN MP: That may have happened, but, you know, I wasn’t the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister.

    I am confident that the Inquiry’s eventual report will give us the evidence for Sir R Lyne’s important revelation that the French government had urgently pointed out to the British government, in London and Paris, that UK ministers were misinterpreting it — which means that the French clarification has been deliberately ignored. I agree with you that it’s extremely difficult to believe that this constant and continuing misinterpretation was and is anything other than deliberate and dishonest.

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