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Michael Howard: Tony Blair must be more honest over Iraq

There has been a serious lack of candour about his discussions with President Bush

It was always clear that winning the war in Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein was only the first of the tasks faced by the coalition. The second great task would be winning the peace.

The Conservative Party supported the war in Iraq. I still think it was the right thing to do. And I agree with Tony Blair that we must see it through. Despite all the current difficulties, Iraq is an immensely better place without the murderous Saddam Hussein and his henchmen.

I visited Iraq just before Christmas and saw at first hand the difficulties British troops faced on the ground. They are doing their job with great skill and sensitivity in extremely hazardous circumstances. One can only imagine how they must feel about the faked photographs published by the Mirror.

But my party's support for the war does not mean that we are disqualified from asking legitimate questions about the conduct of events in Iraq now. Nor does it mean we should be inhibited from criticising. And to suggest, as Mr Blair sometimes does, that any such criticism involves a failure to "support our troops" is to demean the very democracy of which we are so proud.

I have, for example, been arguing for some time that we should have a high-powered UK representative in Baghdad as Paul Bremer's deputy, making sure our voice is clearly heard and heeded. We are the second biggest contributor to coalition forces. We are surely entitled to a say.

In other respects, too, the Government has been less than sure-footed. There has been a lack of clarity, lack of competence and lack of candour.

For example, on 30 June authority will be transferred to an interim Iraqi government. But even now, there are still unanswered questions. The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, tells us that the interim government will have the power to decide whether coalition forces stay or leave. But according to Sir Jeremy Greenstock, until recently the PM's special representative in Iraq, Ayatollah al-Sistani had insisted that the interim unelected government "should not have sovereign freedom to affect the future of the Iraqi state". The Straw and Greenstock versions do not sit easily together.

More confusion arose over the weekend when the Government's spin doctors produced headlines, no doubt to allay the anxieties of Labour back-benchers, about new exit strategies, with hints of a speedier withdrawal. The next day the Prime Minister flatly contradicted this when he said that Britain would not cut and run. He was right to say so, but this is no way to run British foreign policy.

All of this only confirms what so many of us feared , whether or not we supported the war. This Government has been making policy on the hoof. The lack of competence was there for all to see last week. One by one, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary, were all forced to admit that for months they had been unaware of the Red Cross report documenting allegations of abuse of Iraqi detainees, even though the report had been submitted to the British government as long ago as February.

There has also been a serious lack of candour about Tony Blair's discussions with President Bush. I have always believed that the Anglo-American alliance is, and should remain, the anchor of British foreign policy. But the partnership between the United Kingdom and the United States should always be a candid one. No British Prime Minister in recent times has been closer to an American President than Margaret Thatcher was to Ronald Reagan. Yet when Mrs Thatcher disagreed with President Reagan - as she did after the US invasion of Grenada in 1983 and after the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik in 1986 - she made her views well known.

But Tony Blair seems to have established a new doctrine. He seems to take the view that any advice he offers on US policy must be made in private and any disagreement kept secret. This has the convenient advantage, from his point of view, that we never know whether and when he offers advice, or whether and when he disagrees. Of course, some discussions between heads of government must remain confidential. But not all.

The consequence of Mr Blair's doctrine is that we are never told the view of the British government on the crucial issues being discussed with the US. Week after week, I have been asking the Prime Minister in the Commons for the views of the Government on the handover, on the deployment of more British troops and on responsibility for the custody of detainees. But no satisfactory answer has been forthcoming.

Iraq is now the greatest overseas challenge facing Britain. We have a responsibility to the people of Iraq. Freeing them from tyranny is not enough. We have to help establish security and public order. Vital in this process is the training of Iraqi security personnel. Vital also is a credible economic strategy to create jobs. Unemployment only adds to discord.

But the Government also has a responsibility to the British people. Any British government needs the trust and confidence of the people it represents, and nowhere is this more important than in Iraq. More clarity, more competence and more candour would help enormously. It is my duty, as Leader of the Opposition, to press for this to happen. I shall continue to do so to the best of my ability.

The writer is Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons