Politicians jostle in the shadows of a foolish war

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Michael Howard has touched a raw political nerve. In yesterday's
Independent, Mr Howard claimed his right to criticise the Government's lack of candour, competence and clarity in the aftermath of the war against Iraq. In particular, the Conservative leader urged Tony Blair to criticise more openly US mistakes since the end of the war. Mr Howard's opponents have responded with a fearful speed, appalled by his subtle repositioning.

Michael Howard has touched a raw political nerve. In yesterday's Independent, Mr Howard claimed his right to criticise the Government's lack of candour, competence and clarity in the aftermath of the war against Iraq. In particular, the Conservative leader urged Tony Blair to criticise more openly US mistakes since the end of the war. Mr Howard's opponents have responded with a fearful speed, appalled by his subtle repositioning.

The response of the Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, appears on the opposite page today. His article is uncharacteristically personal and passionate, accusing Mr Howard of blatant opportunism. On behalf of the Government, Peter Hain and Peter Mandelson have toured the studios to make the same point. The Liberal Democrats stand to benefit electorally from their opposition to the calamitous war against Iraq. They do not want the Conservatives moving on to their fruitful electoral terrain. Mr Blair, meanwhile, has acted throughout on the assumption that the Conservatives would not benefit in the same way because they supported the war.

The political reactions are over the top. Mr Howard's distancing was significant, but relatively modest. He was careful to reiterate his support for the war and the Anglo-American alliance. Obviously Mr Kennedy is in a much stronger position to make sweeping criticisms of the war. He opposed it from the beginning and deserves credit for having the political courage to do so. Not surprisingly, anxious ministers are keen to point out that the Conservatives were gung ho in advance of the war. But Mr Howard is right to assert that broad support for the war does not prevent the main opposition party from raising some concerns, especially when the aftermath has been handled with such brutal incompetence.

Mr Howard's politically astute intervention and the reaction to it are illuminating. Ministers seek to hem the Tories in to their own political nightmare in Iraq; Mr Howard attempts to creep away slowly and deftly; the Liberal Democrats cry that we were the ones who had nothing to do with this from the beginning. The war and its appalling aftermath continues to cast a long shadow over British politics.

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