MPs have been telling me all week that the public is bored with Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. They are definitely not the talk at the Ferret & Firkin. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, reacted in his lordly way to a report in last week's Independent on Sunday, posing serious questions about how the Prime Minister could have sent troops into war without being properly briefed, not by disputing it but with the weary comment: "We shouldn't go on and on and on discussing the precise detail of this."
Peter Mandelson weighed in during the week with a general warning to all those who persist in raising these questions that they are "ventilating Tory smears". The theme from Thursday's Cabinet meeting was that it is time to put all that to one side and concentrate on the domestic issues which divide Labour from the Tories.
Privately, ministers are not as optimistic as they appear that they can make the problem go away. One Cabinet minister I spoke to last week calculated that something like 2 per cent of the vote could drift from Labour to the Liberal Democrats at the next election, because of Iraq. If that happens, perversely, the main beneficiaries will probably be the Conservatives, who hold second place in most marginal Labour seats.
Unfortunately for the Government, it may be true that most of the population has lost interest in those missing Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, but the more politically aware, opinion-forming sectors have obstinately not forgotten them. If the death toll of British service personnel in Iraq starts to rise, the Labour-voting working class may also be roused.
Yet, no one should underestimate the ability of governments to decide what is interesting and what is boring. It is instructive to dip into the old records of parliamentary debates from late 1988, after Saddam Hussein's troops had used poison gas to wipe out rebellious Kurdish villages. I could not find any evidence that any front-bench politician thought this matter worth raising. However, it was brought up by a few members of Labour's awkward squad, but there was nothing the British government felt it could do. William Waldegrave, then a junior Foreign minister explained that, dreadful though the massacres were, Britain had broken diplomatic relations with Iran and Syria, and therefore could not possibly afford a rupture with Iraq. Thus the gassing of the Kurds lay dormant until it suited the Government to revive the issue as a matter of urgent concern.
Similarly, when public opinion was being prepared for war with Afghanistan, so much information tumbled out about the Taliban's ill-treatment of women that no one who followed the news could fail to be outraged. Afghanistan's opium trade was much in the news too. Mr Blair told the Commons in November 2001: "The arms the Taliban are buying today are paid for with the lives of young people buying their drugs on British streets." Afghanistan was thought at the time to be the source of about 90 per cent of the opiates sold illegally in Britain.
Today, the figure is about the same. Some estimates even say it has risen rather than fallen. As for Afghan women, Amnesty International's most recent report on the issue alleged that domestic violence, gang rape by armed men, and forced marriages - some involving girls as young as eight - are still commonplace. But this is incidental information, not something the Government feels the public must be told.
At least the Kurds and Afghans have had their moment in the sunlight of Western concern, unlike the people of Uzbekistan, living under their former communist boss, Islam Karimov. The British ambassador in Tashkent, Craig Murray, tried valiantly to draw attention to Karimov's dismal civil rights record, and was recalled to London, under a cloud, reputedly because the US State Department took exception to him.
The good news is that Mr Murray is back in Tashkent, uncowed. Last week, he raised the case of an elderly woman, Fatima Mukradyrova, jailed for six years for undermining Uzbekistan's constitution, by trying to draw international atten-tion to the dreadful death of her son, Muzavar Avazov. The police immersed him in scalding water for belonging to an Islamist political party. Steve Crawshaw, London director of Human Rights Watch, said: "The Americans, who have a military base in Uzbekistan, seem to think it makes sense to mute their criticism of the Uzbek government because it appears to be our friend in what is described as the war against international terrorism. They don't think that they're stoking up instability precisely by not looking at the tyrannical behaviour of men like Karimov."
Some people who might have been expected to oppose the Iraq war, like the Labour MP Ann Clwyd, defended it because it freed that country from a vile dictator. No doubt they are right that whoever comes after Saddam Hussein cannot be worse and will probably be better, though personally I shall be very pleasantly surprised if it emerges as the democracy we were promised. Quite soon, I think the President of the US - whoever he may be - will feel the domestic pressure to pull the troops out before any more are killed, and will cut his losses by getting out no matter what mess is left behind.
Ideally, every nasty ruler would be forced to desist from murder or torture for fear of being overthrown by the Seventh Cavalry. In reality, the US is not going to police the world impartially. So if Western leaders are going to order an unprovoked attack on a sovereign state, no matter how badly ruled, domestic opinion will have to demand that they give a good reason.
Boring though it may be to their loyal supporters, the reason that George Bush and Tony Blair gave for attacking Iraq does not stack up. But I do not believe that this need cost Tony Blair the next election, which I suspect he will win anyway. I think it would even be possible to make the issue go away, at a cost of some humble pie. First he would have to make the admission that seems to stick in his throat, that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction. He will probably have to do that anyway, when Lord Butler reports. He could then add that the lesson of the Iraq blunder is not that the intelligence services failed in their job, or that the politicians misinterpreted the intelligence, but that no leader of a civilised nation should ever again launch a pre-emptive war because he has been shown some secret information which cannot be verified.
Steve Richards is awayReuse content