Tony Blair faced a barrage of hostile questions over the Iraq war and the Attorney General's advice on its legality at a TV hustings session last night.

Asked why the Cabinet had not been given the full version of the advice, Mr Blair repeatedly stressed that it had not been necessary because Lord Goldsmith was present to answer questions in person.

Mr Blair also emphasised that Lord Goldsmith had advised that it was lawful to go to war.

He told an audience on BBC1's Question Time Leaders? Special: ?I totally understand why there will be people in this audience tonight who very, very strongly disagree with my decision to take this country to war in Iraq.

?All I can say to you is this: it?s not a matter of the Attorney General?s advice because it?s been shown he advised it was lawful.

?Neither is the matter of misusing the intelligence, there have been four inquiries into that.

?It is, however, a question of a difficult decision I had to take. Was it better to leave Saddam in power or put him in prison? I think it was better to put him in prison,? he added to applause.

Defending his earlier refusal to publish the advice, Mr Blair said the Attorney General?s advice to Parliament had only been published three times in the last 100 years.

The Prime Minister stressed that he had tried to secure a second UN resolution in the run-up to the invasion, adding: ?In the end therefore I had to decide.

?We had 250,000 UK and US troops down there. It was a tough decision. It was a difficult one. I don?t expect everyone to agree with it. I don?t disrespect people who take a completely different point of view.

?But I?m afraid this was an occasion I had no fence to sit on. I had to take the decision and I took it.?

He continued ?In the end the decision isn?t really to do with the Attorney General. It was a political decision that had to be taken.?

Mr Blair said no member of the Cabinet had asked to see Lord Goldsmith?s full advice.

Challenged that his decision was only political in the sense that it was taken to support Mr Bush, he shot back: ?You may say that I took the action simply for America.

?I didn?t ? I took it because I believed it was in the interests of this country. If we had backed away and left Saddam Hussein in power, immeasurably stronger because we had backed away, I think that would have been bad for the security of our region and our world and therefore of this country.?

Michael Howard had earlier told the audience he would not condemn the Iraq war just because it was ?politically convenient?.

The Conservative leader has branded Tony Blair a ?liar? who misrepresented the grounds for invading.

However, Mr Howard says the war was still justified by the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and his breach of UN resolutions. That position was called ?amazing? by an audience member.

Mr Howard said: ?It would be politically much more convenient for me to say that it was a terrible mistake and I would not have done it.

?But I?m afraid I have to be straight with about this, even though it is politically inconvenient.

?I have got to tell you the truth as I see it and the truth as I see it is that it would be the right thing to do.?

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy accused Mr Blair of insulting the families of British soldiers killed in Iraq.

Mr Kennedy criticised the Prime Minister after he dismissed the leak of the Attorney General?s legal advice on the war as a ?damp squib?.

Mr Kennedy said it was not a ?damp squib? for the families of British troops killed in Iraq or the thousands of Iraqi civilians who lost their lives.