Tony Blair has been accused of delaying an inquiry into the mistakes made in Iraq until after he stands down as Prime Minister.
The Government is edging towards allowing an investigation so that the lessons of the conflict and its aftermath can be learnt. But it argues that the time is not right now because British troops are helping the Iraqi government restore order to the country.
The delay means there is no prospect of ministers ordering an inquest before Mr Blair leaves Downing Street next year. Calls for an immediate inquiry were defeated in the Commons by 25 votes on Tuesday.
Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, said last night: "It is all very well for the Government to hold out for the prospect of an inquiry at some unspecified time in the future. But for an inquiry to have real point it should be conducted at a time when those responsible for the decision to go to war in Iraq can be held accountable, if justified, for their actions."
The Prime Minister's official spokesman denied that the Government's stance was designed to protect Mr Blair from embarrassment. He insisted the "key consideration" was how such an inquiry would be viewed in Iraq.
Labour MPs believe that holding an inquest after Mr Blair quits could help Gordon Brown, his most likely successor, to draw a line under the Iraq affair. Yesterday Mr Blair left the door open for an inquiry by telling the Commons that he did not rule one out but insisted that the time was not yet right for a decision. "Lessons, of course, must be learnt and it is important always to do that," he said.
He added that if MPs had voted for an immediate inquiry, "it would have sent a signal that would have dismayed our coalition allies, it would have dismayed the Iraqi government, it would have heartened all those that are fighting us in Iraq." Mr Blair was replying to Sir Menzies, who challenged him over a remark by Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, that a "retrospective inquiry" would be held eventually. The Prime Minister insisted there were no differences between Mr Browne and other ministers.
Sir Menzies called for the phased withdrawal of British troops from Iraq "sooner rather than later".
He urged Mr Blair to decouple British policy from the US, asking him: "Isn't it time for a British strategy based on British priorities, not one which depends upon the outcome of the American elections?"
Mr Blair replied: "When British forces are trying to help those who want democracy to function in Iraq, when American forces are trying to make sure that that democratic process is secure, they are not simply acting on behalf of America or Britain. They are acting in accordance with a United Nations resolution and the full support of the Iraqi government."
He told the Liberal Democrat leader: "The trouble with some of your MPs is they want to pray the United Nations in aid when it suits them, but when it doesn't suit them, they ignore it."
William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, vowed that the Tories would keep up the pressure for an inquiry. "The very clear message from the debate and vote was that the Government cannot resist indefinitely holding an inquiry at the appropriate time," he said.Reuse content