Blair fends off demand for inquiry with majority of 25

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Tony Blair avoided a humiliating defeat over Iraq last night when the Government headed off all-party demands for an inquiry into the Iraq war and its aftermath.

The Commons voted down calls for an immediate investigation by 298 votes to 273, a government majority of 25. During a debate that revealed continuing Labour unease over Iraq, the vote was too close to call and, until the very last minute, Labour whips were putting pressure on backbenchers not to embarrass the Government.

Fifty years to the day after Britain bombed Egypt during the Suez crisis, which later brought down Prime Minister Anthony Eden, Mr Blair was absent from the Commons for a tetchy three-hour debate - the first full-scale one on Iraq since July 2004.

Although 12 Labour MPs voted against him, Mr Blair appeared to have been saved by the reluctance of more backbenchers to join forces with the Tories and Scottish and Welsh nationalists.

The debate was called by the Scottish Nationalist Party and Plaid Cymru, who tabled a motion calling for an immediate inquiry by a group of privy counsellors. They won the backing of the Liberal Democrats, who opposed the war, and the Tories, who supported the invasion but are trying to distance themselves from Mr Blair's actions.

The Tories wanted an inquiry by an independent committee of privy counsellors to be set up next year, but backed an immediate investigation after the Government refused to guarantee an inquiry would be held to learn the lessons from Iraq.

Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, hinted strongly that such an investigation would be held eventually. "It is perfectly sensible and legitimate to say there will come a time when these issues will be explored in the round and in full so we can learn whatever lessons we can from them," she said. However, that would not take place until after Mr Blair stands down next year.

Mrs Beckett insisted that an immediate inquiry would send the "wrong signals at the wrong time", be interpreted as a weakening of Britain's commitment and be "politically and militarily damaging".

She admitted the situation in Iraq was "unquestionably delicate and difficult" but painted a surprisingly optimistic picture of the country's prospects, claiming that it could potentially be "at a turning point".

William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said Mrs Beckett had made a mistake by refusing to guarantee an inquiry at some point in the future.