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The extraordinary photo that reveals just how little MPs knew about the Iraq war

UK Mail On Sunday | February 18, 2007

The extraordinary picture below lays bare just how much Tony Blair's Cabinet was kept in the dark as Britain went to war in Iraq.

Rather than being told by the Prime Minister that the country was at war, they had been roused from their beds by policemen or phoned by journalists with news of the first American strikes.

But at this moment, 7.55am on March 20, 2003, they know no more about the final decision to launch the attack than the rest of the British public tuned in to the early-morning news.

Standing around an ante-chamber in Downing Street, drinking tea and coffee from china cups, they wait while in a locked room behind them the real War Cabinet meeting is already in progress.

Mr Blair is being briefed by military and intelligence chiefs about the attack, launched surprisingly soon by President Bush, a few hours earlier.

But outside of this inner circle, the rest of the Prime Minister's War Cabinet wait for news, the strain and lack of sleep appears etched on their faces.

Also there that morning were former Times editor Peter Stothard and photographer Nick Danziger, who took this extraordinary image.

The pair had been given unprecedented access to Downing Street to record these events for posterity. Stothard recalls how the bemused Cabinet greeted them.

His account begins three days earlier, on March 17, 2003, a day before the Commons debate on the Iraq War.

He is standing outside the Cabinet Room when he is accosted by Robin Cook, who was about to resign.

"What on earth are you two doing here?" sighed Robin Cook. "We're flies on the Downing Street wall," I sighed back with a forced attempt at levity.

"Flies on the wall?" the ex-Leader of the Commons muttered softly. "You're not the bloody only ones". He pointed back towards his colleagues in the Cabinet Room, even then discussing events over which they had little real control."

Three days later Stothard is back outside the Cabinet Room, where Danziger takes this historic picture.

"The Americans had dropped their "shock and awe" on Baghdad somewhat earlier than their best ally had been expecting. Before the War Cabinet meets, its members are musing on how they heard the news: Gordon Brown from the BBC World Service, Jack Straw from a policeman pummelling at his door, David Blunkett from Radio Five Live.

"In retrospect, there are only three men in this picture who could have kept Britain out of the conflict. The face of the first, Lord Goldsmith, does not suggest a man exhilarated by his long and agonised judgment that the war is legal, a view shared by uncomfortably few of his learned friends.

"The lowered eyes of the second, Gordon Brown, look thunderously at the camera. Five days before I had listened to the Chancellor while he put it to the Prime Minister, "What people ask me is why is there not just a little more delay". He had received only crackle and snap for an answer - and was now on War Cabinet call to discuss "resource allocation".

"Jack Straw is the Minister who has been most entwined in the negotiations about how long a delay there could have been. As the Minister responsible for MI6 he has responsibility, too, for the promise from its boss, Richard Dearlove, that weapons of mass destruction were assuredly there, in Iraq, and would assuredly be found.

"But on this first morning everyone in the room affects to be satisfied on the matter of Iraq's illegal arsenal. David Blunkett now says he had arrived that morning "with an expectation of an explanation" but adds that as the war went on "often we didn't get it".

Blair at War: Photographs by Nick Danziger is at the National Portrait Gallery from February 24 to July 15.

 

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