Even with the predictions that the vote for an inquiry into the Iraq war would fail, the result when it came was no less depressing. As protesters demonstrated outside Parliament, MPs debated the war in Iraq for the first time in 2 years. The Government won the vote against an inquiry with 298 MPs supporting it and 278 against, a majority of just 25 votes. Only 12 Labour MPs (the usual suspects) rebelled against what is being accurately described by Plaid Cymru’s Adam Price and others as “the worst foreign policy disaster certainly since Suez, possibly since Munich”. What a sad irony that such a bad result for democracy was reached democratically.
Equally sad is the fact that MPs seemed to buy the ludicrous argument put forward by the Tony Blair’s official spokesman:
“We have troops who are operating in the field of combat. We have an enemy who is looking for any sign of weakness at all, any sign of a loss of resolution or determination. The important thing is that we do not give any signal that we are anything less than fully determined to see the job through.”
This was really the only argument Labour had, coupled with the fear that if the Government lost the vote, it would so damage Tony Blair that it might hasten his departure. Tony Blair of course could not be bothered to turn up to what was actually an interesting debate (perhaps it’s the word “debate” that put him off). Instead The highest ranking Government Minister in attendance was the Foreign Secretary,
Incitatus Margaret Beckett. I say in attendance, what that means in this case is she showed up to make a very poor argument for not having an inquiry, and then galloped off only to return for the end of the debate and the vote. You can read excerpts of her contribution here and here.
The Tories were hampered by the fact that they originally voted for the war in Iraq and so could only criticise the incompetence with which it has been carried out and the deceits that led us into it. They must be ruing the day that Iain Duncan Smith gave Tony Blair such wholehearted support for the war. Labour can (and did) accuse the Tories of playing “political games” with Iraq (not something Labour would ever do, of course), despite convincing arguments put forward by William Hague, who supported the war, and Malcolm Rifkin who opposed it.
The defeat of the motion means that there will be no inquiry into the Iraq war for the foreseeable future. But this does not mean that there will never be an inquiry. What the Government is doing is protecting Blair so he can pretend to leave Downing Street with his ‘honour’ intact. Once he is safely out of the way and unlikely to be held accountable, there may very well be an inquiry. This was hinted at by Margaret Beckett although if she had elaborated, she would have said when the troops come back. That didn’t stop Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, interpreting her statement as a promise of an eventual inquiry:
But Defence Secretary Des Browne told the BBC that “when the time is right, of course there will be an inquiry”.
A government source later said this had been a “slip of the tongue” and Mr Browne fully supported the government’s Iraq policy.
In the House of Commons, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said: “I have no doubt that there will be a time when we want to learn lessons.”
In other words Beckett is saying that they don’t want to learn any lessons at the moment while they’re in the middle of making mistakes and there is a possibility of them being corrected, but when it’s too late and they’re all safely out of the frame they’ll let another government carry the can for their actions.
An inquiry after the troops return was what the Tories were asking for as opposed to the immediate inquiry that the Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems were demanding. Labour’s stance on this issue is despicable. To imply that it is an insult to our troops to have an inquiry into why they were sent into harm’s way and that to suggest having one is “traitorous” is ludicrous even for New Labour. It’s insulting to our armed forces not to fully investigate the circumstances of the disaster they have been sent into. And to continue stressing that they can only return “when the job is done” is also criminally stupid when the job is impossible and the mission has already failed. Perhaps, they realise that the job will never be done and that British troops will be in Iraq for a very long time and so there is no immediate danger of their criminality being properly uncovered as long as some troops still remain in Iraq.
The Government’s insistence that there have already been inquiries into the Iraq war so there is no need for another one is also disingenuous. The Hutton Whitewash was set up to not investigate the death of Dr David Kelly and the Butler review which was set up to look at the intelligence that the British Government had about Iraq’s WMD also had a very limited remit. In both inquiries Blair was allowed to choose the people investigating him. Inquiries into wars while they are still going on are not unprecedented, and indeed they are necessary when a campaign goes drastically wrong. This war in Iraq has gone so badly wrong that only a full inquiry can answer all the questions that need answering. If the matter was put to a referendum, I have no doubt that the vast majority of people would ask for an inquiry. It might help elicit more co-operation from other countries to solve the Iraq problem if the Government was held to account for its mistakes, and it would show how robust our democracy is. As it is, Parliament has once again missed an opportunity to hold the executive to account which is very bad news for democracy. The vote for an inquiry into the Iraq war may have been lost, but the argument has been won and sooner or later, as with the Suez crisis, the truth will emerge.