Tony Blair’s defence secretary Geoff Hoon was 'told to burn' Iraq war memo

The revelations came to light as 690,000 back campaign against Mr Blair’s knighthood

FILE PHOTO: Britain's former Prime Minister Tony Blair attends a meeting of the European People's Party in Wicklow, Ireland, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo
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Tony Blair’s defence minister Geoff Hoon has claimed Downing Street ordered him to burn a secret memo that said the Iraq war could be illegal.

The claims will be a blow to the former British prime minister’s reputation as Mr Hoon was a close personal and political ally.

The reputation of Mr Blair, one of the chief architects of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, has been thrown into the spotlight once again following the announcement that he is to be given a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II.

More than 690,000 people have signed an online petition opposing the move, with some saying that rather than being made a ‘Sir’ he should be prosecuted for war crimes.

Claims made by Mr Hoon in his memoir, which was published in November, have been seized upon after the campaign to “rescind” Mr Blair’s knighthood.

But the former prime minister still deserves his knighthood for the leadership shown during military campaigns before Iraq and securing peace in Northern Ireland, said one former army commander.

“Tony Blair was an international force for good in the Kosovo War and Sierra Leone,” said Brigadier Ben Barry. “I also wouldn't have lost any sleep if he had got a Nobel Peace Prize for the Northern Ireland peace agreement but the whole thing about Iraq was not just the decision to go to war but a lack of personal competence as prime minister from from 2003 to 2007.”

In his book, See How They Run, Mr Hoon details how the British government was assessing its own legal position to enable it to conduct an invasion because it lacked a second UN resolution which would have given it international authority to do so.

Geoff Hoon, centre, served as Tony Blair's defence secretary between 1999 and 2005.  Getty Images

The task of compiling a memo on whether an invasion could legally be conducted fell to attorney general Lord Goldsmith, who produced a “very long and very detailed legal opinion that only sophisticated scholars of international law would understand”.

Mr Hoon said after reading the document, he concluded that Lord Goldsmith “had decided that invading Iraq would be lawful if the prime minister believed that it was in the UK's national interest to do so”.

“It was not exactly the ringing endorsement that the chief of the defence staff was looking for, and in any event, I was not strictly allowed to show it to him or even discuss it with him,” he added.

“Moreover, when my principal private secretary, Peter Watkins, called Jonathan Powell in Downing Street and asked what he should now do with the document, he was told in no uncertain terms that he should 'burn it'.”

Mr Powell has denied telling Mr Hoon to burn the legal advice, and Mr Blair has previously said such claims were “nonsense".

Mr Hoon served as defence secretary from 1999 to 2005 in Mr Blair's cabinet, who led the UK from 1997 to 2007.

The Iraq war which toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime was conducted on the premise that the dictator was harbouring weapons of mass destruction.

Mr Blair built a case for war, claiming such weapons could be used within 45 minutes.

It was later revealed that Lord Goldsmith had said the war could be illegal. However, just days before British soldiers set foot in the nation, he changed his mind and said it was legal.

The Chilcot Inquiry — which looked into the UK’s involvement in war — concluded in 2016 that the former prime minister had overplayed the “flawed” intelligence about the Iraqi leader’s arsenal and ignored peaceful means to resolve the issue.

It found that Saddam posed “no imminent threat” at the time of the invasion.

The lack of evidence of the early legal advice on the war’s legality was reflected by in the Chilcot paper. “No formal record was made of that decision, and the precise grounds on which it was made remains unclear,” his report stated.

If an original copy was destroyed this might have breached the Freedom of Information Act that requires all government departments to retain official advice and documents.

“If all the copies of that advice were destroyed that might be an offence but Mr Hoon wouldn't have been acting illegally if the records were still held by number 10 and the attorney general,” said Brig Barry.

Former British commander in Afghanistan Col Richard Kemp thought burning the memo giving legal advice might not be plausible action for a civil servant to follow.

“What happened to that original advice we will never know but in the end it was the right war to fight and in the end the advice was that it was a legal intervention.”

In her New Year’s Honours list, the queen appointed the former leader a Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, the oldest and most senior British Order of Chivalry.

A petition against the decision has drawn support from nearly 700,000 people.

Tony Blair addresses British troops in Basra, Iraq, during the war. AFP

A statement on the website said: “Tony Blair caused irreparable damage to both the constitution of the United Kingdom and to the very fabric of the nation’s society.

“He was personally responsible for causing the death of countless innocent, civilian lives and servicemen in various conflicts. For this alone he should be held accountable for war crimes.

“Tony Blair is the least deserving person of any public honour, particularly anything awarded by Her Majesty the Queen.

“We petition the prime minister to petition Her Majesty to have this honour removed.”

Updated: January 05, 2022, 2:40 PM