Comment: If you really want to understand this war, listen to Parliament

The Government has been unnecessarily petty in refusing a vote on the Balkans conflict so far
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SEND IN the ground troops! Yes, but the US Congress will want their say. And what of Shroder's coalition partners in Germany and the Assembly in France? Like Clinton, the German and French leaders cannot act alone. Apparently only Tony Blair, with his docile House of Commons, can do what he wants. While they have to go through a series of domestic hoops, the other political leaders in Nato are said to be casting an envious eye on Blair's commanding situation back at home.

Their envy is misplaced. Of course a landslide majority makes Blair an extremely powerful Prime Minister in any situation. Almost certainly he will not lose a vote in the Commons on a single issue in this parliament. Since the election, because of the decisive result, the Commons has often had a desultory air. But the war has made it less marginal. The debates have been outstanding, ministers have been scrutinised thoroughly when they have arrived to make their evasive statements. What is more, I believe the Government will be forced to hold a vote before it commits ground troops to the Balkans.

Far from being on the periphery during the conflict, the Commons has been the best vantage point to monitor the dramatic shifts in position which have taken place since the air strikes began. The changing objectives of the war are laid out more concisely in Hansard each day than anywhere else. Without going through all of them, let us take the starting point of Blair's statement to the Commons on 23 March, the day before the air strikes began. Then he made it clear that the war aim was to "avert what would otherwise be a humanitarian disaster in Kosovo" and to secure the imposition of the Rambouillet agreement.

Now, partly because the humanitarian disaster has been hastened rather than averted, the aim has changed. Robin Cook argued in his speech in the full day's debate on Monday that the objective now was to "seek through our military action, the limited but nevertheless essential task of enabling those dispossessed from Kosovo to return to their homes under international protection". He warned also that: "We will pursue those guilty of war crimes in Kosovo", which raises the possibility of Milosevic being tried by the International War Crimes Tribunal rather than being a negotiating partner at the end of the war. As the broadly supportive chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Donald Anderson observed in the same debate: "We have moved on from Rambouillet, which is dead in many respects".

The change in tactics as outlined to MPs has been even more dramatic. In Blair's statement on 23 March he ruled out the use of ground troops. William Hague was even more emphatic. "Although we support the use of ground troops to implement a diplomatic settlement, we shall not support their use to fight for a settlement," Hague declared. He asked Blair to "confirm that these strikes are not a prelude to a ground war". Blair confirmed that this was the case. By Prime Minister's Question Time on Wednesday, the U-turn was being prepared. He suggested that sending in troops against an "undegraded" Serbian military machine posed "formidable difficulties", but insisted that "Milosevic does not have a veto on NATO action".

Tony Benn would argue that these exchanges illustrate that the Commons is no more than a giant press conference, eliciting little pieces of information here and there. I believe he is wrong. Ministers are highly alert to the mood of Labour MPs. One of the reasons Downing Street is singling Clare Short out for praise at every opportunity is her work behind the scenes in keeping some Labour doubters on board. For some she is a barometer figure, who resigned from the front bench over the Gulf war, but is passionately committed now.

Nor can Conservative support be taken for granted. In war, bipartisan support matters. The last thing the Government will want is for the conflict to turn into a domestic political contest, not just because Milosevic would make the most of such opposition. It would heighten the domestic stakes as well. If events started to go wrong, a party opposed to the strategy would start to benefit. For now, the Conservative front bench is tied in to the changing, unpredictable direction of the war. It is much more likely that the Tory leadership will continue to back the Government even if it means that they too have to announce a U-turn on ground troops as spectacular as the Government's. But this cannot be taken for granted. I cannot believe I am writing this, but Michael Howard, their Foreign Affairs spokesman, has made a series of excellent, searching speeches in the Commons, implying far from unreserved support.

Which is one of the reasons why the Government should hold a vote before committing ground troops. Apart from the relatively trivial matter of exposing the divisions on the Conservative benches, it would force the shadow cabinet to declare its hand in a clear-cut way. In spite of such a risk for them, several shadow cabinet members have spoken privately of the need for a vote. So, too, have the liberal Democrats who have been most vociferous in their support for ground troops from the beginning. Their Foreign Affairs spokesman, Menzies Campbell, agreed in the Commons debate with the unlikely alliance of Tony Benn and Douglas Hogg about this, if nothing else. Campbell declared that: "If we are to ask our young men and women to risk their lives in the furtherance of political objectives, surely they ought to know that they have the endorsement of the House of Commons".

The Government was being unnecessarily petty to refuse a vote on the conflict so far. The small minority who would have voted against would hardly have provided Milosevic with a defining propaganda coup. It would be foolish to ignore the widespread calls for a vote before sending in the ground troops.

And then what? Reflecting the uncertain, messy course of the war, the Commons is in a sceptical if overwhelmingly supportive mood. So far, what has gone wrong has related to lack of strategic clarity and a failure to secure a swift outcome. If British lives are lost and the endgame remains as unclear as it appears to be now, the mood will darken. What is more likely is that a victory of sorts will be achieved, but the policing of the peace will be as complex and as financially draining as the war.

In either scenario, the Labour MPs expressing support but still raising probing questions will place greater emphasis on the questioning. The Conservatives could withdraw their support altogether. And - Messrs Clinton, Shroder, Jospin withdraw your envy now - that would matter.

Steve Richards is Political Editor of the 'New Statesman'