Steve Richards: Blair looks weak and cowardly, while both Labour and the Tories are trapped by Iraq

He was willing to speak in the Commons on Iraq in advance of the war. Now he wasnowhere to be seen
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The Independent Online

The calamity of Iraq hovers darkly over a confused and bewildered Government, sapping its morale and draining any moral energy. It hovers over the House of Commons too.

Some argue that Britain's support for the war highlights an urgent need for constitutional reform. There is such a need, but that has nothing to do with the war. Too conveniently the constitution gets the blame for the decision taken by ministers and a big majority of MPs to support Tony Blair. In reality minister and MPs could have blocked Blair, but chose not to do so.

The Cabinet could have scrutinised him more intensely (read David Blunkett's diaries for a revealing account about how some of them raised questions at first and then dutifully rallied round and fumed about Robin Cook, the only cabinet minister who was right all along).

MPs could have stopped Blair too. They had a vote in advance of the war.

The pre-war vote and the appalling events that followed were the bleak context of yesterday's debate. All those who supported the war then are trapped now. Blair is so constrained that he did not bother to attend the debate let alone speak in it. The symbolism of his absence was darkly damaging. As many speakers noted, Blair was willing to speak in the Commons on Iraq regularly in advance of the war when he was being widely praised by some for his apparent political courage. Now he was nowhere to be seen. It not only seemed weak and cowardly. It was weak and cowardly.

This left the Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, to defend the Government's corner. Ms Beckett was Environment Secretary at the time the decisions relating to war were made. This does not matter very much as some of the prime ministerial decisions were taken without the knowledge of the Foreign Secretary at the time, Jack Straw. Even so, Ms Beckett cannot speak with authority about the war. Only Blair can do so.

Beckett reassured MPs that he would speak when there was a significant turning point in Basra. She was asked to clarify her definition of a turning point. She could not answer. Her view on the Iraq Study Group was less warm now than when the proposals were first published. Yesterday she suggested that was that some of them were "worthy of consideration". As other MPs pointed out, still the Government follows weakly the line from Washington, enthusing and then withdrawing enthusiasm more or less in tandem with Bush.

In calling for a greater understanding of the precarious situation in Iraq, Ms Beckett made a single illuminating point. She pointed out that the government of national unity had only been in place for eight months, adding that ruling by coalition is never easy, especially in a country with such intense divisions. But this was precisely what opponents of the war warned in advance. Supporters paid no attention. Blair's pre- war speeches spoke only of Iraq's liberation. Nowhere are references made to the complex nature of the country Britain was invading. Now Beckett points to the complexities as a defence for what has gone wrong.

As William Hague argued in his speech, there would have been fewer mistakes if the US and British governments had acquired a "greater understanding of local society in Iraq". But a range of experts was on hand to warn of the intense divisions within the local society. In Thomas E Ricks Fiasco, the most comprehensive narrative of the build-up to war, he quotes many writers and experts warning starkly about the prospects of civil war if the US and Britain took military action. In Britain and the US, the leaderships of the two main parties did not dare to pay any attention at the time.

This was Hague's problem yesterday. He supported the war strongly in the famous debate in March 2003. Now he and David Cameron face a different political challenge of signalling a distance in a way that is credible and without splitting his party. The Tory backbencher Edward Leigh intervened during Hague's speech, suggesting that the Conservatives only voted for the war because they had been sold the case on a false premise. Behind him Michael Gove shook his head with an increasing intensity. Hague said he did not entirely agree either and yet I heard the shadow Attorney General make precisely the same claim as Leigh on Radio 4 earlier this month.

Hague went on to make a good speech, but it was delivered four years too late. If the Conservatives had opposed the war from the beginning, Blair would not have dared to take as many political risks. Instead they were with him all the way. Do not underestimate the significance of this. It is much more likely there would have been a referendum on the euro if the Tories had been in favour rather than against. It is possible Britain would not have gone to war if they had been opposed rather than in favour. Their position has influenced the direction of policy on several fronts even though they were in demoralised opposition for Labour's first two terms.

Hague admitted that in many respects the war had gone wrong and argued that there were lessons about Britain's relationship with the US and the need for confidence in the reliability of allies when taking part in war. He was sceptical that the deployment of additional US troops would improve the situation and feared that the initiative will heighten tension in Basra. With good cause he wondered about the degree of co-ordination between the US and UK in relation to the detailed consequences of George Bush's last throw of the dice. Hague ended by highlighting the need to elevate economic and cultural links with the Middle East. In relation to the current nightmare of Iraq he was again too late.

Only those who opposed the war could speak with authority but they too struggled to see a way through. Ming Campbell was one of the few on safe terrain when calling for a ruthless focus on the origins of the war because the current situation was "conditioned by the circumstances in which we got into Iraq". But, normally so sure-footed on Iraq, even the Liberal Democrat leader has slipped by demanding an October deadline for British troops to leave. He made a powerful speech but could not answer the basic question about what would happen if conflagration seemed possible a month later. The proposal for an arbitrary deadline got much publicity when other more thoughtful policies proposed by his party are ignored. But Campbell does not need more publicity in relation to Iraq. Already he is strong and distinctive. We went into Iraq for the wrong reasons. We should not pull out for the wrong reasons too.

There are no obvious solutions. On that there was consensus in yesterday's melancholic and contemplative debate. How different from the messianic tone that at times marked the exchanges in the same arena on the eve of war.