Former foreign secretary Robin Cook today dealt a series of devastating blows to the government's case for a war against Iraq, saying that it was "now clear that Saddam Hussein did not represent a 'clear and serious threat'".
Giving evidence to the foreign affairs select committee inquiry into the government's handling of the war - and the evidence used to back its case - Mr Cook cast doubt on both dossiers of evidence against the Iraqi leader, revealing that "Iraq was an appallingly difficult intelligence target to break".
Directly afterwards, Clare Short - who, like Mr Cook, resigned from the government over the war on Iraq - gave evidence to the committee, calling Tony Blair's performance "an honourable deception".
The detailed questioning of the prime minister's case for war will present a major embarrassment for Mr Blair, who is seeking to refocus the media's attention on domestic public service reform in a speech this afternoon.
Mr Cook called last September's so-called "dodgy dossier" both a "red herring" and a "mistake", saying he had been "taken aback by how thin it was".
He continued: "Neither of us [the UK and US spying agencies] had much intelligence inside Iraq. The US was drawing heavily on exiles."
Mr Cook, who was leader of the Commons at the time of his resignation over Iraq, also revealed that the "dodgy dossier" had not been discussed at cabinet.
He said that by the late 1990s the government was confident that Iraq did not have nuclear or long-range missiles, and that "containment worked better than we had hoped".
And he urged the government not to "compound the error" by now not admitting their advice "was wrong at the time".
Calling the intelligence material nothing much more than an "alphabet soup", Mr Cook said the government went to war with Iraq using information that was "highly suggestible" and intelligence that was selected to fit its position.
Mr Cook, repeated that the government had scored a "spectacular own goal" in publishing its dossier about Saddam Hussein. Asked if intelligence had been "sexed up" to back the decision to go to war, Mr Cook said: "I think there was a selection of evidence to support the conclusion."
He said he was "disappointed" by the quality of the intelligence in the September dossier as it did not provide "any recent and alarming" intelligence to suggest that Iraq was a current and serious threat.
He told the committee that the "great majority" of the paper was "derivative" from 1991. "I do not see there is anything wrong with a representation of an academic study of Saddam Hussein but it should have been labelled as that - an academic study."
He said it was "impossible" for him to defend the taking out of the phrase "opposition groups" and replacing it with the word "terrorist".
In his statement to the MPs, Mr Cook restated his belief, outlined in his resignation speech, that Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction.
He said: "This would now appear to be correct. Such weapons require substantial industrial plant and a large workforce. It is inconceivable that both could have been kept concealed for the two months we have been in occupation of Iraq.
"I have never ruled out the possibility that we may unearth some old stock of biological toxins or chemical agents and it is possible that we may yet find some battlefield shells.
"Nevertheless, this would not constitute weapons of mass destruction and would not justify the claim before the war that Iraq posed what the prime minister described as a 'current and serious threat'."
Mr Cook also asked why UN inspectors were not allowed back into Iraq.
He said: "I think that the reason could possibly be that they could confirm there was no immediate threat from credible weapons of mass destruction." Ms Short, in an appearance lasting over an hour, echoed many of Mr Cook's points, and added to the sense that the cabinet played very little part in the decisions on Iraq.
The former international development secretary said that virtually all decisions had been taken by the prime minister's "entourage", while there were "no cabinet-level decisions on strategy or options" for the war.
She claimed that the "decision-making had been sucked out of the Foreign Office", and that the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, had merely been "loyal" and "helpful" to Mr Blair's process.
Ms Short claimed that all three government-produced dossiers on Iraq had been "shoddy pieces of work".
And she stated explicitly: "Alastair Campbell is responsible for presenting government policy - and that soon becomes propaganda."
She also restated her belief that Mr Blair had decided to go to war alongside the US president, George Bush, as early as last autumn. She said that after a meeting with Mr Bush in the US, Mr Blair returned to Britain to give a "very belligerent" press conference in Sedgefield.
She also revealed that last September Mr Blair "said he didn't want it [Iraq] raised in cabinet and that he'd talk about it with me separately."
Ms Short criticised attacks on the French president, Jacques Chirac, calling them a "figleaf" for "contradictory assurances" Mr Blair had given to President Bush on one hand, and parliament on the other.
She claimed that Hans Blix, the UN chief weapons inspector, had not been given intelligence information, even when he asked for it to be passed on. Specifically, she said she had raised the issue of documents being transported to homes in Iraq, and asked that those houses be raided. According to Ms Short, Mr Blair promised this would happen, but it did not.
Ms Short also suggested that Mr Blair's noticeable gauntness during the conflict was due to this tacit, or secret, agreement with President Bush.
She told MPs: "I think the prime minister had said to President Bush 'we will be with you'. He hadn't laid down the conditions needed to bring Britain's influence to bear to temper the United States," she said.
"I think that is why he lost weight and all the rest."
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