Extracts of a phone conversation between Tony Blair and George Bush a few days before the invasion of Iraq must be disclosed, a tribunal has ruled.
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 on 12 March 2003. Graham’s order was made in response to a freedom of information request by Stephen Plowden, a private individual who demanded disclosure of the entire record of the conversation.
“Accountability for the decision to take military action against another country is paramount,” Graham had said in his original order.
Upholding that ruling on Monday, 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 tribunal added: “Also in our view, particularly from the evidence in this case, the circumstances surrounding a decision by a UK government to go to war with another country is always likely to be of very significant public interest, even more so with the consequences of this war.”
It said parts of the phone call between Blair and Bush recording what the former British prime minister said must be disclosed. The two men are believed to have discussed UN resolutions on Iraq and a television interview given by Jacques Chirac, then French president, on 10 March 2003. Blair repeatedly blamed Chirac for the failure to get a second UN security council resolution backing an invasion of Iraq.
Jack Straw, 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”.
Straw added: “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, then UK 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.
Clare Short, international development secretary at the time, accused Blair in the tribunal hearing of “clearly, deliberately misleading the French position”.
Angus Lapsley, a Foreign Office official responsible for US-UK relations, argued against disclosure on the grounds that Britain had “a uniquely close and privileged relationship with the US”. He added that there was “no comparator” in terms of the “breadth and depth” of the UK’s relationship with the US, which was vital to Britain’s national interests.
A spokesman for the Foreign Office, which has 30 days to disclose the information or appeal, said it was “obviously disappointed by the decision of the tribunal”. He added: “We will want to study the terms of the judgment more closely over the coming days.”