Gordon Brown was under intense pressure last night to throw open a new inquiry into the Iraq war to the public as families of soldiers who died, and anti-war MPs, reacted with horror to suggestions it would be held largely in secret.
Cabinet sources said the prime minister would announce an inquiry early this week, probably on Tuesday. Its structure would be “similar but not identical” to the Franks inquiry into the 1982 Falklands war, which was held behind closed doors.
Last night, as families of the dead said they would march on Downing Street if any of its deliberations were kept secret, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg stoked the controversy saying he would boycott the entire investigation if it was not open, wide in its remit and did not report speedily.
Clegg told the Observer that, unless those in charge were granted full access to all documents, could subpoena witnesses, had a remit to look back to events at least a year before the war began and reported within months, the inquiry would be seen as a sham.
He said: “If it does not have this kind of remit, my party will not back it or participate. We are talking about the biggest foreign policy mistake since Suez. To lock a bunch of grandees behind closed doors in secret and wait for them to come up with a puff of smoke, like the election of the pope … would be an insult.”
Clegg added that the inquiry could be held on the lines of an open Commons select committee that the public and press could attend. “This inquiry is an acid test for all of Gordon Brown’s talk of reforming British politics,” he said.
“If he holds it all or partly in secret and kicks the eventual report into the long grass, it will be a betrayal of all those families who lost children serving in Iraq. They need answers, not another Whitehall stitch-up.”
Labour MP Alan Simpson, chair of Labour Against the War, said Brown’s strategy of using the inquiry as part of a personal political fight-back and to win favour with his backbenchers was in danger of backfiring spectacularly. “If it is done secretively, it could be the final nail in his coffin,” he said.
“We need no less rigorous an examination on this than we had on the far less important issue of MPs’ expenses. A secret examination would be worthless.”
The announcement of an inquiry comes just weeks after British troops officially ended combat operations in Iraq after a six-year campaign in which 179 British servicemen and women died.
The war, which was supported by Brown and which he financed as chancellor, cost the British taxpayer approximately £6.5bn, or roughly £1bn a year, equating to about £100 from every man, woman and child in the country.
Rose Gentle, whose teenage son, Gordon, was killed in Iraq in 2004, said that families who had lost sons and daughters in the conflict would march on Downing Street to protest if the proposed Iraq inquiry was “closed”. She said it was vital that the government dispelled concerns over the reasons for invading Iraq.
“What is the point of an inquiry behind closed doors? No family would be happy with that. We already feel that we have been lied to by the government. We don’t want any more lies. We would be prepared to go to Downing Street if the inquiry is not transparent.”
Philip Cooper, whose son Jamie was the youngest soldier seriously injured in Iraq, said: “Ministers should not treat us like us mushrooms – kept in the dark and fed on shit.”
Former Labour defence minister Peter Kilfoyle, who moved a parliamentary amendment to stop the war in early 2003 that attracted support from more than 130 Labour MPs, said: “Nothing but a completely full inquiry will do.”
Those pressing for an inquiry argue that the war may have been illegal under international law and that Tony Blair made a wholly inadequate case for war by overblowing the case against Saddam Hussein, based on dubious intelligence.
Attorney general Lord Goldsmith’s advice to the government over the legality of the 2003 invasion would also be a key part of any inquiry.
The Conservatives, who supported the war but have since questioned the government’s handling of the run-up to the conflict, welcomed the inquiry and are broadly happy with a Franks-style investigation. William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary, said: “Given that many key decisions and events were in 2002 and 2003, it is vital that an inquiry starts work with all possible speed. It is crucial that it has access to all government papers, and that it is able to report on what went wrong with the planning and co-ordination of the occupation of Iraq, as well as the decisions about the war itself.”