It says much about the Government's approach to the issue of Iraq that neither the Prime Minister nor the Leader of the Opposition chose to attend yesterday's Commons debate on Iraq, the first full discussion of the post-invasion since 2004. Instead, both chose to talk to businessmen after they had attended Prime Minister's Questions, Tony Blair at a minor CBI conference while David Cameron jetted off to the Swiss ski resort of Davos. Only Menzies Campbell, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, chose to stay on for the Iraq debate.
Tony Blair's absence was an act of contempt to the House and an expression of total disregard of the British public. His excuse, given through Margaret Beckett, his Foreign Secretary, was that he preferred to wait until the completion of Operation Sinbad to secure Basra over the coming weeks, or months. But this is to add insult to injury. It is precisely now, when we are embarked on a policy of aggressive disengagement and handover, when the US President has committed himself to fresh troop in a "new strategy" and when Iraq is descending rapidly to civil war that Parliament should be debating policy and the future of British troops there, not when one ground operation is completed and the Prime Minister can come to the Commons with claims of security gains which only time can test.
One can readily understand why Tony Blair should not wish to discuss Iraq at this stage and why David Cameron should be unwilling, unlike Menzies Campbell, to put aside precedent and lead the debate from the opposition benches. George Bush's decision, re-emphasised by the President in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, to ignore the recommendation of the Baker group and to send more troops into Iraq has been greeted by a deafening silence in No 10.
What is the public, and Parliament, to make of this? Does it mean the British are not in accord with Washington, despite beings its closest ally in Iraq? Does it mean we are now following our own, quite separate, path in southern Iraq? Does it mean we are on a course for early withdrawal, or are we going to stay as long as the US? And how long do they intend to go on at full strength? What we cannot do is pretend, although Mr Blair is inclined to, that what the Americans do in Baghdad has no implication for what happens to our troops in Basra. Nor can we any longer hide under the cover that, while all may be chaos in Baghdad, it's all going fine in Basra.
Since the Commons last debated the issue, the number of British soldiers who have been killed in Iraq has risen to 130, patrols can go out only in full combat gear and the troops are confined within heavily fortified barracks for the rest of the time. If, as most experts now assume and President Bush's words on Tuesday night clearly implied, the increased US forces are used to assault the Sadr militia in Baghdad, the reverberations will be direct and fast down south. Of course we have an interest in Bush's new strategy. But do we have a voice or will the Prime Minister lead us to follow on Washington regardless, as we have since we first accompanied?
Menzies Campbell would now have us set a firm timetable for withdrawal by October. He is right that we need some sort of timetable. He is correct to see that sooner rather than later. Our troops are part of the problem now and Iraq can only hope to emerge as an independent country when it is free from occupation. But we cannot just depart on our own. We are part of US policy and must make clear our view of it. That's what the Prime Minister should have been explaining to the Commons yesterday, that and just what is Britain's "exit" strategy. It's clearly on Whitehall's mind. It is time they shared it with us, the public.