Invasion of Iraq was Blair's 'big mistake', says Hodge

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Indy Politics

Margaret Hodge has become the first serving minister openly to attack the Iraq war after describing it as Tony Blair's "big mistake in foreign affairs", adding that he was a man who was driven by "moral imperialism".

It is the first time that a minister has been directly quoted as attacking the Iraq war, although others are known to believe privately that it was a serious mistake. Her unscripted comments were made at what she thought was a private dinner, and were not intended to be published, but they will leave her career as a minister hanging by a thread.

Mrs Hodge, the Industry minister, told members of the Islington Fabian Society, a pressure group within the Islington Labour Party, that she had had doubts about Tony Blair's foreign policies since 1998. Challenged by one of the dinner guests about why, in that case, she had voted in favour of sending British troops into Iraq, she replied that she had accepted Mr Blair's claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction because "he was our leader and I trusted him".

Aware of the implications of what she was saying, Mrs Hodge added: "I hope this isn't going to be reported."

Yesterday, the minister denied making the comments attributed, which appeared on the front page of the Islington Tribune, a free newspaper. The story was unsigned, but was written by the newspaper's editor/proprietor Eric Gordon, who was described by a fellow journalist as "a hack of some repute, who knows a story and knows what is reportable".

Mr Gordon, who was at the dinner addressed by Mrs Hodge, could not be contacted yesterday because he was recovering from a hospital operation.

Mrs Hodge's remarks are particularly damning because she has known Mr Blair for longer than almost anyone else in government. She was his near-neighbour in Richmond Terrace, Islington, until the Blairs moved to Downing Street in 1997, and they paid frequent visits to one another's homes.

Her comments coincide with a long-planned attempt by Mr Blair to appeal directly to Middle East opinion through the increasingly influential Al Jazeera television station. The interview was conducted in Downing Street yesterday by Sir David Frost, and broadcast across the Arab world in the evening. Mr Blair has said that one of his main aims during his remaining months in office is to try to restart the stalled peace process in Palestine.

Mrs Hodge, who has been MP for Barking since the 1990s, infuriated many of her Labour colleagues last April when she warned that as many as eight out of 10 white working-class voters in east London supported the far-right British National Party. Her critics accused her of contributing to the BNP's success in the May council elections by giving them publicity.

She told guests at the Fabian dinner that the BNP was a more effective party than it used to be when its members were often shaven-headed, tattooed men. Now they wore smart suits and canvassed door-to-door, taking up residents' complaints, she said.

Mrs Hodge first rose to prominence 25 years ago as the left-wing leader of Islington Council, which was repeatedly attacked in tabloid newspapers as an example of the new breed of high-spending "loony left" council. She told guests at the Fabian dinner how in the 1970s, when she chaired Islington housing committee, her deputy, Jack Straw, pushed through a policy banning dogs on council estates, against her opposition. She told them that Mr Straw, who was Foreign Secretary at the time of the Iraq war, and is now Leader of the Commons, was then a "populist - which he is still to this day".

She said the dog ban had provoked threats to her life, which persisted for 20 years. "Every year I used to get a threatening letter from a tenant who said that as a result her dog Flossie had had to be put down."

A loose cannon

"Gutter journalism" (describing the Evening Standard's exposé of child abuse in Islington childcare centres, 1993)

"I got it wrong; what is clear now is that the quality of care in children's homes was appalling. The final responsibility is mine." (May 1995)

"Extremely disturbed" (description of Demetrious Panton, who suffered child abuse in an Islington home but went on gain a university degree and work as a consultant on regeneration)

"The worst boys' club ... a most gossipy, sniping, back-biting place" (description of the House of Commons in a Good Housekeeping interview, October 1995)

"Fair, brave and much needed" (describing David Blunkett's controversial decision to introduce student tuition fees, March 1998)

"What else have you been in? I don't get to see much television" (to Ross Kemp, EastEnders star, at a Labour Party conference reception hosted by his wife, Rebekah Wade, October 2002)

"Simply stacking up numbers on Mickey Mouse courses is not acceptable" (to a Labour think-tank when she was Higher Education minister, January 2003)

"They will work all over the place ... some of the jobs are in Tesco" (on the future of 5,000 sacked Rover workers, June 2005)

"When I knock on doors I say to people, 'Are you tempted to vote BNP?' and many, many, many - eight out of 10 of the white families - say yes" (on the impending council elections in east London, April 2006)

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