There will be no rejoicing until Mr Blair apologises for misleading us over Iraq

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the House of Commons yesterday, Tony Blair asked us to rejoice at the fact that Iraq had been liberated. This echo of Margaret Thatcher's infamous exhortation during the Falklands campaign serves only to demonstrate the extent of the Prime Minister's arrogance over the war. As Robert Fisk has demonstrated in his reports for the paper this week, the state of Iraq at the moment is no cause for rejoicing - "they must endure the anarchy we call freedom," he wrote yesterday from Najaf. And if Mr Blair believes the British people are in the mood to join in his celebrations of a misbegotten foreign adventure, he is sorely mistaken, as recent by-elections and polls have revealed.

In the House of Commons yesterday, Tony Blair asked us to rejoice at the fact that Iraq had been liberated. This echo of Margaret Thatcher's infamous exhortation during the Falklands campaign serves only to demonstrate the extent of the Prime Minister's arrogance over the war. As Robert Fisk has demonstrated in his reports for the paper this week, the state of Iraq at the moment is no cause for rejoicing - "they must endure the anarchy we call freedom," he wrote yesterday from Najaf. And if Mr Blair believes the British people are in the mood to join in his celebrations of a misbegotten foreign adventure, he is sorely mistaken, as recent by-elections and polls have revealed.

The Commons debate failed to give Mr Blair the "closure" on the issue of Iraq for which he is so desperate. This is because the most serious charge against the Government, revealed in the Butler report, still stands unanswered. The Prime Minister failed to explain why he left out caveats from the security services about Saddam Hussein's biological and chemical weapons capability. The Tory leader Michael Howard repeatedly pressed this point, but Mr Blair maintained that his startling claims about Saddam's weapons capability in the run-up to war accurately reflected the "general picture" of the information he was shown by the intelligence services. Close reading of the Butler report does not support this.

In truth, the Prime Minister was only able to dodge the main issue so effectively because the Tories are proving so ineffective in holding him to account. Since they committed themselves wholeheartedly to the invasion of Iraq last year, the Tories lack sufficient credibility now they are trying to question the basis of that decision to invade. Mr Howard was not the leader of his party at that time, but there was certainly no ambiguity about his support for the war. Mr Blair had a lot of fun quoting the Tory leader's words; in the end, Mr Howard spent almost as much time as the Prime Minister defending the war.

The Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, put Mr Howard to shame. His incisive critique of the Government's policy towards Iraq underlined the Liberal Democrats' emerging claim to be the natural party of opposition. On the question of Iraq, this is undeniably true. Their robust and principled criticism of the Government, from the moment the drums of war began to beat, has done them great credit.

Mr Kennedy also made some unusually powerful criticisms of Mr Blair's style of government, picking up where Lord Butler's report left off. Despite its muted tone, it is clear Lord Butler felt the informal foreign policy meetings in Downing Street undermined the Cabinet's collective responsibility and revealed a dangerously cavalier attitude to committing the country to war. Mr Blair announced yesterday that in future such meetings will be formal, and treated as ad hoc committees of the Cabinet. And in an attempt to avoid a repeat of the notorious September 2002 dossier fiasco, all such dossiers will be presented separately from the political case. He also promised a shake-up of the intelligence services - but, sadly, did not say that John Scarlett would be barred from his new job as head of MI6.

This is Mr Blair's way of demonstrating that the lessons of the Butler report have been learnt, but as a response it is far from satisfactory. The message from Mr Blair is clear: it will be business as usual. As Mr Kennedy pointed out yesterday, this does not add up to the "genuine contrition" which is required from the Prime Minister for so grievously misleading Parliament and the British people about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. It is a sorry way to mark ten years as leader of the Labour Party.

Until Mr Blair offers a satisfactory explanation of why he shed vital intelligence service caveats in making the case for war, the question of Iraq will continue to plague him. When the Prime Minister faces up to his terrible misjudgements, that will be a time to rejoice. But not before.

Comments