The Lib Dems are right: Mr Blair must apologise over Iraq before we can move on

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The Independent Online

The Liberal Democrats come to the vexed question of Iraq with unsullied hands. They, alone of the political parties, opposed the war from the start, and they have been handsomely vindicated. Unlike Mr Blair and his ministers, the Lib Dems have no need to justify their dismal judgement with hindsight. Unlike Mr Howard and his front bench, they have no embarrassment from which to extricate themselves. This is why they deserve to be listened to when they set out their thinking about what should happen next.

In his freewheeling question and answer session at the Lib Dem conference yesterday - the sort of event that makes a party accessible and which other party leaders would do well to copy - Charles Kennedy put forward three lines of thinking. The first was a sensibly cool refusal to rush to judgement. He would not, he said, jump to the conclusion that there should be war crimes charges brought against Tony Blair or George Bush. There should be no precipitate withdrawal of British troops and, no, it had not reached the point where he would be calling for Mr Blair's resignation. With right so demonstrably on his side, Mr Kennedy can bide his time.

The second was an eminently reasonable definition of limits on the scope and duration of Britain's troop presence in Iraq. Some of Mr Kennedy's stipulations - that the troops be confined to their present area of operation and kept under British command - appear to be already in effect. Others, such as a phased withdrawal of troops as Iraq's electoral timetable advances, may be wishful thinking. The condition that Parliament have the final say on all big decisions, however, is unimpeachable.

Which brings us to Mr Kennedy's third point: his strong demand for "full disclosure" from the Prime Minister so that the truth of events leading up to the war can be established "before the British people give their final verdict at the next general election". Immediately after the party conferences were over, he said, Mr Blair should come to the dispatch box in the Commons to make a statement and apologise for the "gross errors of judgement and presentation that have bedevilled the entire issue".

This is a demand that we, and probably large numbers of British voters, would wholeheartedly endorse. Through two specialised inquiries and a succession of leaked documents - including the latest batch detailing Foreign Office warnings about the risks of invading Iraq - neither MPs nor the public have been given any definitive explanation of how we came to be taken into war on such an erroneous set of premises. The Prime Minister owes us an explanation and an apology, and Parliament is the appropriate place to make them.

In voicing this demand for full disclosure, Mr Kennedy - and his Foreign Affairs spokesman, Sir Menzies Campbell, who has also called for a prime-ministerial apology - are rejecting Mr Blair's pleas to the British public to bury their disagreements about the war and "move on". They are also rejecting the infuriating line of ministers who keep telling us, without a trace of shame or responsibility, that we are where we are.

The fact is that no one has been held to account for what increasingly emerges as a catalogue of truly historic misjudgements. There have been no dismissals and no resignations of ministers, advisers or senior civil servants. The only people to have lost their jobs so far are those ministers, BBC executives, one newspaper editor and one journalist who challenged the Government. No wonder Mr Blair wants us to "move on".

Mr Kennedy gauges, correctly, that few will bring themselves to do so without an honest admission that mistakes were made, and a thorough accounting of how they were. As head of government and the one who associated himself so personally with the decision to go to war, Mr Blair is the one who must apologise. This is the only way the public will be convinced that lessons have been learnt and that similar mistakes will not be repeated. It is the first, most elementary, condition for "moving on".

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