Prime Minister Tony Blair is facing mounting pressure from across the House of Commons to hold an independent inquiry into the Iraq war after Clare Short levelled the incendiary allegation at the prime minister that he had lied to the cabinet.
As an increasingly exasperated prime minister once again swept aside calls for a public inquiry into the failure to uncover banned Iraqi weapons, the former international development secretary accused Mr Blair of bypassing the cabinet to agree a “secret” pact with United States President George Bush to go to war.
To compound the prime minister’s difficulties – as Members of Parliament prepare to return to Westminster tomorrow after the Whitsun recess – Robin Cook demanded an independent inquiry into the “monumental blunder” by the government.
His criticisms were echoed last night by the Tories who said they were giving “very serious consideration” to calls for an inquiry.
Michael Howard, the shadow chancellor, indicated to the BBC last night that the Tories were considering abandoning their bipartisan approach to Iraq because of fears that Downing Street might have “doctored” last year’s dossier on Iraq’s banned weapons to strengthen the case for war.
The interventions by such senior figures from across the house gave heart to Labour MPs who are planning to ambush the prime minister on Wednesday at his weekly Commons appearance and during a subsequent statement on the G8 summit.
They are demanding an emergency Commons statement after an unnamed intelligence source told the BBC last week that Downing Street had “sexed up” a dossier on Iraq’s banned weapons.
Tam Dalyell, the father of the house who has a question to the prime minister on Wednesday’s Commons order paper, is expected to step up the pressure by asking about Ms Short’s accusation that he was deceitful to the cabinet on three occasions.
In her BBC interview yesterday, she accused Mr Blair of:
· Agreeing in “secret” with Mr Bush at Camp David last September to go to war – and then telling the cabinet that he would try to act as a constraint on the US.
· Misleading the cabinet over Iraq’s weapons capability – by “spinning” the claim that Iraq could launch a chemical or biological attack within 45 minutes. “Where the spin came was the suggestion that it was all weaponised, ready to go, immediately dangerous, likely to get into the hands of al-Qaida, and therefore things were very very urgent.”
· Falsely telling the cabinet and the world that Jacques Chirac, the French president, would veto a second UN security council resolution authorising war. The transcript of Mr Chirac’s interview, which she subsequently read, showed the prime minister’s claim to be wrong.
Ms Short, who was widely criticised after she failed to carry out a threat to resign on the eve of war, accused the prime minister of riding roughshod over the conventions of cabinet. “It was all done in Tony Blair’s study … The normal Whitehall systems to make big decisions like this broke down and were very personalised in No 10.”
Warning that civil servants and troops were ready to disobey an order to go to war, Ms Short said that the prime minister swung round the Whitehall machinery at the last moment when the attorney general declared that military action would be legal. But she added: “I think, given the attorney’s advice, it was legal. But I think the route we got there didn’t honour the legality questions.”
Some of her criticisms were echoed by the former foreign secretary, Robin Cook, who demanded an independent inquiry into the failure to uncover any weapons of mass destruction, despite the dire warnings from Downing Street.
“It is beginning to look as if the government’s committed a monumental blunder,” he told The World This Weekend on Radio 4.
“The government should admit it was wrong and they need to set up then a thorough independent inquiry into how they got it wrong so that it never happens again and we never again send British troops into action on the basis of a mistake.”
As a growing number of Labour MPs joined the clamour for an emergency statement and a full investigation by the parliamentary intelligence committee, an angry prime minister hit back at his critics.
Speaking en route to Evian, Mr Blair predicted that the next US-UK intelligence dossier on Saddam Hussein’s arsenal would make sceptical voters “very well satisfied” that he was right.
Expressing frustration about what he sees as his critics’ attempt to refight the war by other means, Mr Blair insisted for the third time in as many days that intelligence reports had not been doctored under political pressure and would be vindicated.
Appealing for voters to be patient, he declared: “I have said throughout that when this is put together, the evidence of the scientists and witnesses, the investigations from the sites, people will be very well satisfied.”
The new dossier on which Downing Street pins its hopes will be produced by US intelligence and weapons inspection teams which are now fanning out over Iraq while colleagues work on humanitarian aid and reconstruction.