Government may block information tribunal ruling that ordered record of phone conversation to be released, sources confirm
An explosive transcript of one of Tony Blair’s final conversations with George Bush before the invasion of Iraq may be suppressed by the coalition government, Whitehall sources have confirmed.
Dominic Grieve, the attorney general, believes there is “a case to answer” in favour of blocking an information tribunal ruling that ordered the former leaders’ telephone exchange to be released in the public interest.
The then British prime minister and US president reportedly discussed the opposition of the the then French president, Jacques Chirac, to military action which he had voiced in a television interview two days earlier.
The proposed veto of the transcript’s release would be discussed by the cabinet within weeks, sources confirmed. Blair and the current Labour leader, Ed Miliband, were asked their opinion on the proposal last week.
If the government halts publication it would be the third time the coalition has overruled an information tribunal ruling since January. This is despite promises from David Cameron and Nick Clegg that they would lead the most transparent government ever.
Clare Short, international development secretary at the time, said Greive’s proposal was “truly shocking”.
“We saw under Tony Blair that the position of the attorney general, in that case with Lord Goldsmith, had become increasingly politicised, and I hope we are not seeing the same now.
“I can only conclude that, by putting this to cabinet, the present government is trying to protect the right of future prime ministers to deceive the British people in the way that Blair did,” she said.
Blair and Bush are believed to have talked on 12 March 2003 about the possibility of military action in Iraq without a promised second UN security council resolution backing such action. Blair has since repeatedly blamed Chirac for the failure to get a second resolution.
Four months ago, the information tribunal ruled that the government should disclose some of the conversation following a freedom of information request by Stephen Plowden, a private individual who requested disclosure of the entire conversation.
The Foreign Office lost an appeal against an order by the information commissioner, Christopher Graham, to disclose records of the conversation between the two leaders.
Judge John Angel, president of the information tribunal, said Foreign Office witnesses had downplayed the importance of a decision to go to war, a view the tribunal found “difficult to accept”. The government was refused permission to appeal against the ruling.
Jack Straw, the then foreign secretary, claimed in evidence to the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war that Chirac made it clear France would not back a fresh UN resolution “whatever the circumstances”.
“I don’t think there was any ambiguity.”
The issue is important because the Blair government claimed Chirac’s interview killed off all hope of a diplomatic solution.
Straw’s claims were contradicted by Sir John Holmes, the then British ambassador to France. He told Chilcot that Chirac’s words were “clearly ambiguous”. One interpretation, Holmes said, was that Chirac was simply warning that France would veto a fresh UN resolution at that time as UN weapons inspectors had not been given a proper chance to do their job.
The government has been accused of abusing the use of ministerial vetoes over tribunal rulings, most recently in the rush to stop publication of a risk register assessment of the NHS reform bill.
The November 2010 Transition Risk Register set out internal government assessments of the risks posed by the NHS reforms in the Health and Social Care Act which became law in March after a tortuous passage through parliament.
The veto over information tribunal rulings was used twice between 2005 and 2010; it has already been used twice this year.
In an interview with the Guardian, Graham voiced his concerns that Cameron’s attitude towards freedom of information was encouraging civil servants to circumvent the law. He said the Coalition may be finding it difficult to deliver their plans for transparent government.
It was revealed on Monday that opposition in Whitehall to the disclosure of key documents relating to the invasion of Iraq, notably records of discussions between Blair and Bush, has meant the Chilcot inquiry will not now be able to publish its report for well over a year.
A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office declined to comment.