Tories hamstrung by support for war

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Michael Howard has gradually tried to distance himself from Tony Blair's stance on Iraq and will ask the Prime Minister some searching questions in the Commons today.

Michael Howard has gradually tried to distance himself from Tony Blair's stance on Iraq and will ask the Prime Minister some searching questions in the Commons today.

But the Tory leader has been hamstrung by his party's support for military action last year. Before the conflict, the Tories under Iain Duncan Smith, who had strong links to the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration, were sometimes more hard line on Iraq than Mr Blair.

Mr Howard's problems were illustrated at the weekend when he said in an interview with The Sunday Times that he would not have voted for the Commons motion in March last year if he had known then what he knows now about the intelligence. He went on to say that he still supports the war, provoking inevitable charges of opportunism.

The Tories hope last week's Butler report will deepen Mr Blair's "trust problem". But it is frustratingly difficult for the Tories to inflict damage on Mr Blair on the issue on which he is most vulnerable.

Ian Taylor, a former Tory minister who opposed the war, said yesterday: "As a party, it is quite difficult for us to take advantage of it, because obviously we weren't asking the right questions at the time."

As Mr Blair relied on Tory support to win the crucial Commons vote, Mr Taylor said the "catastrophe" of Iraq might have been avoided if the party had acted differently.

But Mr Howard is not going to vacate the playing field. One ally said: "We know we will be accused of opportunism every time we speak on Iraq. But we won't be scared off."

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