By Ray Fleming

THERE is a difference between “public interest” and “in the public interest”. Sir Gus O'Donnell, Head of the UK Civil Service, has drawn on this nice distinction to refuse permission to the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war to publish documents on Tony Blair's conversations with President Bush and other communications between them.

There is obviously strong public interest in the documents but I think Sir Gus is right to rule that publication would not be “in the public interest” -- he has referred to the “particular importance” of the confidentiality of exchanges between the US President and the British Prime Minister. This does not mean, however, that we will not learn broadly what was said between the two partners in the Iraq war because the members of the inquiry have seen the documents and their report will have to reflect, however discreetly, what they know. Sir John Chilcot himself is not happy with Sir Gus's ruling because both Tony Blair and his chief of staff Jonathan Powell have drawn on the documents in their recent books.

Tony Blair's return appearance at the inquiry on Friday was always likely to be of absorbing interest and he now has the additional task of answering the written evidence of the former Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, that Mr Blair's statement to the House of Commons on the war was “not compatible” with the advice he had given regarding its legality.

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