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War in Iraq: ‘Thatcher would have been better than Blair’

Tony Blair’s backing for the US-led invasion of Iraq was attacked by one of his most senior diplomats yesterday, who said that Margaret Thatcher would have been better at handling the decision.

Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British ambassador to the United States, said the former Tory leader would have insisted on a more coherent strategy and would not have allowed such a failure in post-war planning. He added that Britain gained nothing from its closeness to the White House and that Mr Blair should have been firmer in his dealings with President Bush.

On the third day of Sir John Chilcot's inquiry into the Iraq war, Sir Christopher revealed that it was “taken for granted” in the US that Britain would join in its military action against Saddam Hussein. He said he warned Mr Blair about a need for more clarity on post-war planning, as senior aides to Bush were simply assuming it would be “all right on the night”.

He suggested that Mr Blair may have made a secret pact with President Bush to back military action during his visit to his Texas ranch in the spring of 2002. Mr Blair followed up the trip by making a speech discussing regime change in Iraq.

Insisting he was not making a “party political point”, Sir Christopher said he had asked himself “what would Margaret Thatcher have done?” in handling Britain's relationship with the US. “I think she would have insisted on a clear, coherent diplomatic strategy and I think she would have demanded the greatest clarity about what will happen if and when we remove Saddam Hussein,” he said.

The inquiry also heard that the US administration was already looking towards Iraq on the day of the 9/11 terror attacks on New York. During a telephone call on that day, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said officials were looking into Saddam Hussein's involvement.

Big hitters in President Bush's team remained unconcerned about what would happen after the fall of Saddam, Sir Christopher said. He recalled Dick Cheney, the Vice President, reassured him that US and British troops would be “greeted with cheers and flowers” as they reached Baghdad.

“What just disappeared from the calculations was the understanding that after Saddam was toppled we were going to have to maintain law and order, and guarantee the continuation of the central services,” he said. By the end of 2002, the US was set on military action, Sir Christopher stated.

The military timetable, which planned an invasion for March, meant that weapons inspectors, led by Hans Blix, were under huge pressure to prove that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

“It was impossible to see how Blix could conclude the inspection process by March,” Sir Christopher said.

“Because you cannot synchronise the (military and diplomatic) programmes, you had to short-circuit the process by finding the notorious ‘smoking gun' — and, of course, there was no smoking gun.”

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