London, Sept. 14 (Reuters): Prime Minister Tony Blair, braced for a critical week as an inquiry into the death of a weapons expert returns to action, faced claims today that his foreign minister urged him not wage war on Iraq.
Blair’s public trust ratings have shrivelled, with most Britons doubting the case he made for attacking Iraq and many blaming his government for scientist David Kelly’s suicide. His standing took a further blow today when a new book claimed that just days before Iraq was invaded, foreign secretary Jack Straw asked Blair to opt out.
According to experienced political journalist John Kampfner, Straw urged his boss to tell Washington that Britain would offer political and moral support but no troops.
“Jack Straw had cold feet with the failure to get the second resolution at the UN,” Kampfner told BBC Television.
Neither Blair’s Downing Street office nor the foreign office would comment on his claims.
Kampfner said he had interviewed 40 key government players. “I stand by the book and the sourcing of it,” he said.
His report follows the revelation last week that Blair ignored warnings from British spy chiefs, shortly before the invasion of Iraq, that war would increase rather than lower the risk of militants like al Qaida acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
Blair fiercely denies he “sexed up” a dossier on the threat posed by Iraq but no banned weapons — his main reason for war — have been found five months after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow.
“The government needs to restore public trust and credibility. It can’t do that by continuing to insist it got it right because everybody can see it got it wrong,” former cabinet minister Robin Cook, who resigned over the war, said today.
Senior judge Lord Hutton tomorrow begins round two of his probe into Kelly’s death. He is promising a more searching examination of key government figures who will be recalled. Kelly slashed his wrist in July after he was exposed as the source of a BBC report accusing Blair’s government of hyping up the case for war to win over sceptical Britons.
Iraq will dominate an election on Thursday for a north London parliamentary seat made vacant by the death of a member of Blair’s Labour Party. Brent East should be rock solid Labour territory but polling on the ground suggests it will be a knife edge vote with the Liberal Democrats, who opposed the war, closing fast.
If lost, the damage to Blair will be heavy at a time when opinion polls show that most Britons no longer trust him.
Hutton will quiz former defence intelligence chiefs and BBC head Greg Dyke tomorrow but the most exposed figure is defence secretary Geoff Hoon who is expected to testify again and is rumoured to be lined up as a fall guy.