When it comes to a debate on Iraq, Tony Blair goes missing

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair has been accused of treating the House of Commons with contempt by failing to stay in the chamber to hear MPs protest about his disastrous handling of the chaos in Iraq.

As MPs yesterday staged the first Iraq debate in government time since the war, the Prime Minister retreated to the quiet of his oak-panelled office behind the Speaker's chair to prepare for a series of private meetings on more pressing matters - the row over gay adoption, a weekly briefing with a handful of senior backbenchers, and a speech to the CBI.

Mr Blair could have cleared his diary to be in the chamber for the long-awaited debate. However, he found the prospect of the CBI conference at a London hotel a mile from Parliament more congenial.

After 30 minutes of interrogation from MPs at Prime Minister's Question Time, he slipped out of the chamber by the Speaker's chair to his room and grabbed a snack lunch with his close aides. MPs from all sides showed their disapproval of his policy on Iraq - and his refusal to show respect for those who paid the price for that failure - by filling the chamber to hear the debate.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, criticised him for refusing to stay for the occasion. Even Sir Menzies's own MPs were surprised by the ferocity of his attack, as he savaged Mr Blair, saying: "What could be more important than that the Prime Minister should be here to debate the issue of Iraq at a time when British forces are at risk every day ... Isn't that the kind of leadership we are entitled to?"

Ten minutes later, as Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, stood at the dispatch box to open the debate, Mr Blair settled down in his private room at the Commons with his aides, and prepared for a meeting about Northern Ireland with the Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.

In the chamber, a short stroll away, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary, protested at Mr Blair's absence, saying: "As the disastrous conflict in Iraq has rightly been referred to as Blair's war, what is so important about the Prime Minister's engagements this afternoon that he is not able to be present in the House to take part in the first debate on Iraq in government time since the war itself [began]?"

At 1.45 pm, after Mr Paisley left, two Labour MPs, Angela Eagle and Chris Bryant, were shown into Mr Blair's office to discuss the row over an opt-out for the Roman Catholic church over gay adoption.

Meanwhile, in the chamber, William Hague, Mrs Beckett's shadow, pointed to the government front bench where Mr Blair had been, and contrasted Mr Blair's absence with some of his more statesmanlike predecessors.

"It is unimaginable that an Attlee or a Callaghan or a Churchill or a Thatcher would not have been here to debate a situation in war," said Mr Hague.

Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party leader, added: "Why was he so anxious to talk us into this disastrous war but so reluctant to explain how we are going to get out of it?"

At 2.40 pm, Mr Blair's black Daimler swung into the afternoon traffic to take him the short distance to the Victoria Park Plaza Hotel for a speech and question-and-answer session with the CBI. But the Prime Minister did not entirely escape the shadow of Iraq. As he arrived at the hotel, he was greeted by a group of 20 anti-war demonstrators shouting: "Tony, Tony, Tony, why aren't you in Parliament?"

Inside the conference, there was no mention of Iraq. "This is my second question time of the day; I think you are more polite than my first audience," he told CBI representatives.

When Mr Blair was asked what he would do if he could write his political legacy on a blank sheet of paper, he hoped it would be ensuring public support for taxpayer-funded public services. However, he conceded that his overall legacy would be written by others - perhaps an acceptance that for the vast majority of people, it would be Iraq.

Tory officials later accused Mr Blair of getting his priorities wrong, pointing out that David Cameron pulled out of the CBI's annual conference last November to visit British troops in Iraq.

At 3.45 pm, the Prime Minister's official spokesman defended Mr Blair, saying he would report to the Commons after Operation Sinbad was concluded in Basra, which would be "the important point of decision" on the role of British troops in Iraq.

By that time, Mr Blair was back at Downing Street, possibly contemplating his final months in office and his legacy in a country far away.