The strange conspiracy of the rotten apples

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Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday was an odd occasion. It began with Mr Michael Howard asking an anodyne question about the abuse of prisoners in Iraq. Mr Tony Blair answered in full moralistic flow but neglected to answer the one part of Mr Howard's question which was at all sharp: it was about what steps were being taken to prevent any recurrence of the wrongdoing. The Conservative leader did not press him on this point. Indeed, at this stage of the proceedings, he did not come up with a supplementary of any kind.

Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday was an odd occasion. It began with Mr Michael Howard asking an anodyne question about the abuse of prisoners in Iraq. Mr Tony Blair answered in full moralistic flow but neglected to answer the one part of Mr Howard's question which was at all sharp: it was about what steps were being taken to prevent any recurrence of the wrongdoing. The Conservative leader did not press him on this point. Indeed, at this stage of the proceedings, he did not come up with a supplementary of any kind.

It would be pleasant to be able to report that Mr Charles Kennedy then sprang forward to fill the gap, if springing forward were the kind of exercise in which Mr Kennedy normally indulged. But not a bit of it. He contented himself with echoing the shocked but ineffectual sentiments of the other two.

It was as if the party leaders had concerted a line beforehand - an approved, leaders' line. They must speak in tones appropriate to a natural disaster or to a memorial meeting for a deceased colleague. Above all, they must not appear to be blaming one another, for that would partake of "opportunism", even worse, of "making political capital", for all the world as if politicians did not spend their entire waking hours, and conceivably part of their dreams as well, doing precisely those things. At all events, it is clear that the three of them adhere to what may be called the rotten-apple school of military jurisprudence.

Certainly something has been taken out of the life of Mr Blair when he can no longer use the formula that, while regrettably there may be a few rotten apples among the US forces in Iraq, Our Boys are mercifully free of such contamination. Mr Howard is in much the same position. As I pointed out here several columns ago, whenever he attacks Mr Blair over Iraq, he succeeds in looking foolish. Perhaps he realises this by now and that his omission to put a supplementary at PMQs was evidence of the difficulty in which he finds himself.

But why should Mr Kennedy join in the conspiracy of the rotten apples? What is there in it for him? The Times wrote in a leading article on 11 January: "The number of voters ready to bolt to Mr Kennedy over Iraq alone might be smaller than he had hoped for. He needs to fashion an appeal to the 'soft Tories' as well."

I cut this out and kept it (not, I confess, my usual practice, least of all from the paper in question), not because the passage struck me as exceptionally acute but because it seemed to me to be extraordinarily silly. Do the poor boobies who write these things not realise that the numerous Conservatives who are dissatisfied with Mr Howard and propose to vote Liberal Democrat are in this condition precisely because of Iraq, and that they include hard Tories as well as the soft variety, whatever those categories may signify exactly? That accounts for Mr Howard's previous unproductive attempts to detach himself from Mr Iain Duncan Smith's support for the Government - which have now, it seems, been put back in the cupboard marked "Not to be used".

Quite apart from this, Mr Kennedy has a clear issue, which is like a precious metal to any political party (and which Mr Howard's Conservatives have yet to locate) but which is of particular value to the Liberal Democrats, accustomed as they are to being accused of having "no policies"; though in my experience they have policies coming out of their ears, even if you have to buy up the entire contents of the party bookshop to discover what they are at any given moment. When people accuse a party of lacking policies, what they really mean is that, in their eyes, it lacks a clear identity.

I do not think Mr Kennedy has retreated over Iraq. What is true is that from the beginning he has shown a certain caution, which some may regard as prudent and others as pusillanimous. There have been occasions when his distinguished foreign affairs spokesman Sir Menzies Campbell, who could have walked straight out of (or, rather, into) a Tory cabinet of the early 1960s, has sounded more radical than Mr Kennedy. But that may be because Sir Menzies is forever popping up on Newsnight, and very persuasive he is there too; whereas Mr Kennedy is more sparing in his appearances.

At the start of the criminal adventure, Mr Kennedy was chary of speaking at the rally of protest. He was adversely criticised for this. But here my sympathies were with him entirely. I too gave a wide berth to this particular vessel, manned as it was by a motley collection of Trotskyists, charlatans and political ne'er-do-wells, who always turn out in force to assume command of such events. Mr Kennedy finally appeared; looking somewhat uneasy in the circumstances, to do him credit.

Nor did Mr Kennedy suggest that Our Boys should not fight, which would have been an entirely defensible proposition, as they were engaged in an illegal war. Even Mr Robin Cook did not go as far as this. What he said, in an article in the Sunday Mirror, was that the troops should come home. He proposed that Mr Blair should emulate the Grand Old Duke of York; nothing more. This modest proposal proved too much, both for his cowed party and for a jingo press; and Mr Cook was forced, Galileo-like, into a recantation. But Mr Kennedy did not place himself in the dangerous position of offending the holy fathers who lay down what is permissible in these matters and what is not.

Today, likewise, Mr Kennedy is a strong believer in adopting what is called a responsible approach. It is Mr Blair's approach too. As far as I can see, what it amounts to is staying in Iraq until such time as Mr George Bush or his successor tells us we can leave; much as we were in that country after the First World War under a League of Nations mandate. It was misleadingly coloured red in several atlases of that period under some presumptuous cartographer's ruling - it cannot have been anything else - that it was now part of the British Empire.

Mr Kennedy has, without doubt, shown high political skills in not allowing the Liberal Democrats to be painted the unpatriotic party, as Hugh Gaitskell allowed Labour to be depicted after Suez: something that explains a good deal about Mr Blair as well. Mr Kennedy may have had no choice but to lower the volume once Our Boys had gone into action overseas, which was what he did. He may have been right last week to join the other two leaders in their posture of more in sorrow than in anger. Where he is wrong is in thinking that the voters are prepared to keep Our Boys in Iraq for as long as Mr Blair and Mr Bush find convenient.

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