Previous Section Index Home Page

Lord Butler made the same point in an interview in The Spectator. He pointed out that decisions were made on the prime ministerial sofa, rather than in meetings with minutes around the Cabinet table, with all that that meant for both the quality of, and proper accountability for, decision making. Pluralism in the Government, a proper role for Parliament and the Cabinet and a truly independent civil service are there to act as a check on hubris in government. That is why we need to recalibrate the constitution of this United Kingdom and rebalance power for the benefit of Parliament, at the expense of an over-mighty Executive. We are otherwise reduced to the sorry spectacle of an Attorney-General changing his mind to save his political master’s skin.

Let us remind ourselves once again of the central fact: we fought the war because of an arsenal of weapons that proved to be non-existent. Many thousands of people have paid with their lives for that mistake, and the same mirage of deception and disinformation continues to cloud our understanding of what is happening on the ground.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): To clarify the point for my understanding, will the hon. Gentleman have the courtesy to tell the House whether he thinks that British troops should withdraw now?

Adam Price: We had a full debate, which I led, and my position is absolutely clear. Where was the right hon. Gentleman?

31 Oct 2006 : Column 171

The constant hailing of non-existent progress by the Government is an insult to those who genuinely appreciate what is really happening in a worsening situation. It is a scandal that, as yet, not a single Minister has unequivocally admitted that things in Iraq have gone wrong. Both in the run-up to the war and in its aftermath the Government’s policy has been characterised by a cocktail of wishful thinking, self-delusion and evasion. The sequence of events that led us to commit our armed forces to a war that was illegal and unnecessary is as yet unexplained. The strategy for removing them remains unpublished. The inquiry that we are calling for is not only essential to understanding what happened three and a half years ago; it is imperative in understanding where we go from here. It is impossible truly to discern the problems on the ground in Iraq unless we appreciate what went wrong—the mistakes and misjudgments that took us there in the first place.

History does not repeat itself, as Mark Twain once said, but it does rhyme. Fifty years ago today, our Government began bombing Egypt under the cover of darkness. That invasion, too, was based on a falsehood. Anthony Eden secretly colluded with Israel and France, and kept Parliament in the dark. It is a matter of debate as to whether the Prime Minister deliberately deceived us, but one way or another we were certainly misled. The evidence clearly suggests that he had privately assured President Bush that he would join the invasion. Here was a Prime Minister so deluded by his determination to do what he believed to be right that he began to think not as primus inter pares but as an acting head of state. It is time now to tell the Prime Minister and all future Prime Ministers that they are not presidents, and that the policy of this United Kingdom does not always have to be the policy of the United States.

4.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

The motion before the House today calls for the creation of a new inquiry

The question that I want to put to the House is not so much why—because of course it is perfectly sensible and legitimate to say that there will come a time when these issues will be explored in the round and in full, so that we can learn whatever lessons we can from them—but rather, why this specific inquiry, and much more to the point, why now.

31 Oct 2006 : Column 172

Unlike at the time of the Falklands war we now have a framework of Select Committees that carry out independent inquiries. I recognise that the official Opposition have tabled an amendment that suggests a Falklands-type inquiry in the next Session of Parliament, without pointing out that that begins in just two weeks. I am afraid that I think that that, too, is not sensible. It avoids none of the dangers of sending the wrong signals at the wrong time and distracting resources and attention from where they are most needed. Indeed, it risks appearing to set a deadline for our operations in Iraq which would be politically and militarily damaging.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Margaret Beckett: Not for the moment.

There have already been two parliamentary Committee reports on Iraq: the Foreign Affairs Committee report, “The Decision to go to War in Iraq”, and the Intelligence and Security Committee report, “Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction—Intelligence and Assessments”. There have been two further independent reports: the Hutton inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. David Kelly CMG, and the Butler review of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. Is this the moment to take a decision and a step of the kind recommended in the motion? My answer is a resounding no. There is absolutely nothing in the unquestionably difficult and delicate situation in Iraq today that makes this the obvious and right time.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) was first.

Mr. Leigh: So the Foreign Secretary can give a firm commitment to the House that an inquiry will be held as soon as our troops leave.

Margaret Beckett: What I am saying to the House, and what I shall say repeatedly, is that this is not the time for making these decisions. I will tell the hon. Gentleman why. Our words in the House today will be heard a very long way away. They can be heard by our troops, who are already in great danger in Iraq. They can be heard by the Iraqi people and by their Government, many of whose members I know many hon. Members in all parts of the House have met—people whose bravery and fortitude is humbling and who still need our support, not the rehashing of issues that have been gone over umpteen times in the House.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The Foreign Secretary asks why now. What if, God forbid, Parliament has to vote to send our brave armed servicemen and women into war again? We need an inquiry now to ensure that the British people can once again trust the Government. I do not think that that is possible, but I hope that in the House today the Foreign Secretary will agree to an inquiry in order that
31 Oct 2006 : Column 173
future wars can be built on trust and on the full backing of Parliament and the people, without mass deception.

Margaret Beckett: I do not take any lectures from Conservative Members, who never, ever gave the House a vote about sending troops into action, including on some occasions when I do not necessarily dispute that it was right to send them, including on occasions without United Nations authority.

Several hon. Members rose

Margaret Beckett: I give way to the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), who I believe is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): The Foreign Secretary prayed in aid the Select Committee’s report. I was a member of that Committee, and I have to say to her that her predecessor and the Government obstructed the Committee’s proceedings at every stage possible, refusing to produce witnesses and documents.

Margaret Beckett: I am sorry; I do not accept that in the slightest, and I shall tell the hon. Gentleman why. I followed—from a slight distance, I concede—many of the discussions and many of the requests from the Select Committee.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Margaret Beckett: Not for a minute. I am in the middle of answering a previous intervention. I followed those matters as carefully as I could, and I observed—and I observed it from Committee members who had ministerial experience—people asking for papers and for disclosures which they, as former Ministers and experienced Members of the House, would never for a single second have contemplated disclosing. I reject utterly the suggestion that the Committee did not get full support.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Does the Foreign Secretary think I am exceptional, in the sense that not one of my constituents has asked me to press for an inquiry into the causes of the war? However, many of my constituents are troubled about which moves we should make in the best interests of the people of Iraq. Many of them would be appalled at the fact that much of the debate is looking backwards. There will come a time when accounts are settled, but my constituents are desperately concerned about the right moves for the future.

Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who I know is held in high regard in all parts of the House. What he says is also my experience, and I expect that he speaks for Members in all parts of the House who may not all wish to acknowledge it.

Several hon. Members rose—

Margaret Beckett: I shall make a little progress, if I may.

31 Oct 2006 : Column 174

What happens in the House today will be heard not only by those in Iraq—the people and the Government—but by those whose intention it is to do us harm, whether in Iraq or beyond. Again, I ask the House to consider whether now is the time to send a signal—every Member of the House knows in their heart that this is true—which many will undoubtedly interpret as a weakening of our commitment.

Several hon. Members rose—

Margaret Beckett: I shall give way in a moment.

There is an important tradition in the House that all political parties give our troops and are seen to give our troops their full support while they are in conflict. That is a precedent which it would be dangerous to break.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): The Foreign Secretary would get rid of the dissention this afternoon and send out a fairly united message if she said that there will be a Franks-type inquiry into the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath as soon as the troops are withdrawn. I cannot understand whether she is saying that she accepts the need for such an inquiry but that the time is not ripe, or whether she is saying in weasel words that we have had enough inquiries already. If she accepted what will be forced on the Government in any event—a Franks-type inquiry when the hostilities have ceased—we would send a united message from this House.

Margaret Beckett: I am surprised that the right hon. and learned Gentleman cannot understand what I am saying, because it is clear and simple: today is not the time for making these decisions. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The Foreign Secretary is responding, and she must be heard.

Margaret Beckett: As for the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s contention that a Franks-type inquiry is required, I refer him to the discussion in this House in July 2003 when one of my former colleagues, Mr. Tam Dalyell, who was summoned to give evidence to the Franks inquiry, commented on how inadequate it was.

Several hon. Members rose—

Margaret Beckett: I am sorry, but I must make some progress.

It is now more than three years—

Several hon. Members rose—

Margaret Beckett: I have been on my feet for seven minutes, and I have made very little progress.

It is now more than three years since the Government committed UK forces, as part of an international coalition led by the United States, to military action against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Saddam Hussein had repeatedly and openly defied the authority of the United Nations, and before UN Security Council resolution 1441, which was carried unanimously because of the unanimous conviction that he represented a serious danger to the international community, he already stood in material
31 Oct 2006 : Column 175
breach of 17 separate UN resolutions. He refused fully to co-operate with the weapons inspection regime imposed on him as someone who had both possessed and used weapons of mass destruction. The international community as a whole—not just the United States and the UK—believed that he had developed and wished further to develop WMD capability.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary realise that her opposition to an inquiry into the origins of the Government’s policy on Iraq would be more convincing if the Government were not simultaneously bitterly opposing any debate on the future of their policy in Iraq? Is she not ashamed that, in the three years since the war, the Government have not initiated a single debate on the subject in this Chamber? The United States Congress was permitted a full debate on the matter as recently as June. Is it not appalling that, when the Government have been responsible for such an arrant misuse of their powers, this Chamber has not been allowed to debate the matter?

Margaret Beckett: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is talking complete nonsense, as he must be well aware. He is a former Secretary of State for Defence, and he knows that there are five defence debates a year and that there are debates on foreign policy, all of which are in Government time. Of course it is open to people to debate those issues.

Mr. Keetch: The Foreign Secretary seems to be saying that an inquiry now would be wrong, because our forces are in the field. Indeed, she has accused the Conservative party of never having succumbed to such a debate in the past. How does she answer the historical fact that in May 1940, while British troops were fighting and losing a campaign in Norway, a Conservative Government allowed a debate in this Chamber in which the Labour party, the Liberal party and some notable people from the Conservative party conspired to vote against the Government of the day, which led to the resignation of the then Prime Minister and the installation of a coalition Government? When our troops are in a campaign, that is surely when this House—a democracy—should be allowed to debate their conduct.

Margaret Beckett: I did not say the words that the hon. Gentleman has put into my mouth, and I am sorry if he misheard me. I continue to take the view that this is not the time for this debate. Moreover, I have been reminded that the motion to which the hon. Gentleman has referred was taken on the Adjournment and was not a motion to bind the Government of the day.

Several hon. Members rose—

Margaret Beckett: I am willing to give way, if I have time, but I must get on with my speech.

31 Oct 2006 : Column 176

The decision to take part in military action was not taken lightly or trivially. In an unprecedented step, it was the subject of a full debate and a vote in this House, which was right. Committing British troops to a war is one of the most solemn decisions that any Government can ever take, but we did so because we judged, and because this House judged—the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) talked about voices being heard; some 52 Members of this House spoke in that debate—that the threat to international peace and security was very real and very grave. The original decision to take military action provoked fierce debate in this Chamber and across the country, and I have no doubt that it will continue for much time to come; but the decisions we take in the weeks and months to come should surely have as their priority what is best for Iraq and its people, here and now, as well as the impact that any decision we make may have on our troops in the field.

Last December, more than 75 per cent. of the Iraqi people elected a new Parliament under a permanent, new constitution; and let us not forget that they did so under threat of death from those who sought only destruction in Iraq. This spring, that Parliament elected a new Government of national unity representing all Iraq’s main political parties, and for the first time in their history the people of Iraq began a bold attempt to share power equitably among the nation’s ethnic and confessional populations.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con) rose—

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con) rose—

Margaret Beckett: I will not give way for the moment.

I do not in any way underestimate the terrible difficulties that many people in Iraq are facing. Many of them have to cope today and every day with the kind of terrorist horror which so profoundly shocked our own country last July. As I have said, their bravery in the face of that threat is humbling. The Iraqi Government, headed by Prime Minister Maliki, are barely five months into their term. From the outset, they have faced a daunting array of political and economic challenges of a kind with which any Government in the world would struggle to deal. Overshadowing all else has been a relentless and rising tide of murderous violence, some of it a very deliberate effort to destroy the fragile foundations of Iraq’s democratic system.

Mr. Baron: Cannot the Foreign Secretary understand that a good part of the deep frustration expressed by this House arises because the Prime Minister refuses to come to this House and lead a debate on current and future policy on Iraq? Given General Sir Richard Dannatt’s recent comments, and the fact that the situation seems to be deteriorating, will the Foreign Secretary now encourage the Prime Minister to come to this House and lead a debate?

Margaret Beckett: I am sorry, but I do not think that that is what is inspiring the comments and the mood in the House today. Perhaps it would be better if it were, but I do not believe that it is.

Next Section Index Home Page