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6.10 pm

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): The best debates in this House are when hon. Members on both sides find themselves in almost total agreement, and I pay tribute to what the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) has just said.

It is a depressing illustration of the Government’s indifference to this House that the Foreign Secretary, in the first debate of more than two years on the Floor of the House specifically on Iraq, left the Chamber shortly after her own speech and will presumably not return until the winding-up speeches. The Foreign Secretary and the Government have been reluctant to answer to this House for far too long.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who has raised this valuable debate. However, I must say that I am slightly nervous in one respect, because the Government may seek to use the debate to avoid pressure which they otherwise deserve. It is extraordinary that on an issue such as going to war—the war has led to the disastrous consequences referred to by many hon. Members—it has been three years since the last Government-initiated debate, which took place before the war had even begun. Since then, not only have several thousand coalition servicemen lost their lives and, probably, hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis been slaughtered, but we have seen the disintegration of that country, which is unlikely to be reversed. We have also seen sectarianism that is the opposite of what both this Government and the United States Government intended. So far, the only serious beneficiary of the war is the Iranian Government, who are now clearly the power in the region. That extraordinary consequence of Bush-Blair policy was far from what they intended.

Today is not the day to go into the merits and details of the policy, but if we live in a parliamentary democracy in which the Government are accountable to Parliament for the way in which they conduct their affairs, then not having a debate in Government time for three years on a matter as serious as going to war is an extraordinary disgrace of which the Government ought to be ashamed. In reply to my earlier question, the Foreign Secretary said, “We have had debates on
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foreign policy. We have had debates on defence. No doubt we will have a day on this subject as part of the Queen’s Speech debate.” That is hopeless and unacceptable. The Government’s policy has failed so far, and they are in denial. If they want to recover support in this House and in the country, they must have the guts to come to the Dispatch Box to explain and defend their policy, not once every three years but on a regular basis, to allow their claims to be tested.

Today’s motion is justified because the troops in Iraq and the nation as a whole are not impressed by the argument that this Parliament, which they elected to represent their interests, cannot be trusted to debate these matters without destroying the morale of our forces in Iraq. That argument is absurd, and the Government should be ashamed of it—indeed, I doubt whether they believe it—and it should not be repeated.

Mr. Joyce: The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who tabled the motion, has said that he has

Is that not a good reason for the right hon. and learned Gentleman not to support the motion?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I go by the terms of the motion, which does not mention those words. Frankly, that is a separate issue.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab) rose—

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: No; I am sorry, but I have limited time.

Some of us were always against the war, while others, on both sides of the House, were in favour of it. That does not necessarily make it any easier to reach a judgment on what should happen now and on whether our troops should be withdrawn. I happen to take the view that precisely because the war was an extraordinary and foolish mistake we do not have the luxury of withdrawing our troops immediately—if we conclude that we should not have gone there in the first place. We must reach an honest and objective judgment on whether the balance of interests for the people of Iraq is served by our continuing presence in that country. The arguments in favour of that proposition are, I regret to say, getting weaker and weaker as the months go by.

The Government need to answer certain questions. What will it take for them to admit that their policy has been a failure? How many more people have to die—British troops, American troops and Iraqi civilians? How much further has the disintegration of Iraq to go? We are sometimes asked, “Were you not pleased to see Saddam Hussein go?” Of course I was. If I were a political opponent of the previous Iraqi Government, I would probably be better off now than I was during Saddam’s time, but I regret to say that the lives of the vast majority of Iraqis, including those who have no interest in politics, are vastly worse today than they were three years ago in terms of security, life expectancy, access to public utilities and ability to live their lives without fear. I bitterly regret having to make that point.

The Government must reach a view. When will they admit to this House and to the people of this country
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that the policy was a fundamental error? That is important not only because confession is good for the soul, but because until the Government accept the failure of their policy, their proposals determining where we go from here will not carry any credibility. If they are seen simply to be defending themselves in an impossible situation, they will carry no authority with regard to future policy.

The relationship between the Prime Minister and the President of the United States has been central to the Government’s policy. The Liberal Democrat spokesman was right to refer to what is happening in the United States, where an extraordinary public debate is taking place. Congress had a full debate on the issue as recently as June this year, and a commission was set up under James Baker with the co-operation of the White House. Massive issues are being discussed openly in the United States. What are the Government doing to contribute to that debate in the United States, or are we excluded from it? Will we simply receive instructions on what the United States Government have decided on either the withdrawal or the continuation of troops in the region? What are the Government doing to encourage an open debate in this country with people in the services, in politics or in other aspects of public life who have a contribution to make?

The Foreign Secretary said only a few days ago that the fragmentation of Iraq might happen and that it is up to the people of Iraq, as if the Government can be indifferent to that consequence. The Government must realise that if Iraq were to disintegrate, which may be the result of their policy, it would have enormous consequences for stability in the Gulf and the middle east as a whole. That outcome would remove an important state in that region, further increase the power of Iran and make the task of obtaining stability in the region much more difficult.

I know that many hon. Members want to speak, so I shall conclude by saying the following, and I make no apology for it. The Government have lived a lie for the past three years. They took this country to war on a false prospectus, and tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands, have died as a consequence. The situation in the middle east has never been worse, and both the US Government and the British Government are responsible. This is not the worst disaster since Suez, because it is worse than Suez, and it is worse than Vietnam—at least in Vietnam the war had already begun when the Americans intervened to help one side. On this occasion we actually started the war, which has had horrific consequences. If the motion forces the Government, most of whose members are absent from the Chamber—the Prime Minister did not even turn up in the first place—to realise that their policy will not carry credibility until they claim not only the minimal successes, but the massive failures, then the debate will have been worth while.

6.19 pm

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): On 17 March 2003, I voted against my Labour Government for the first time. It was one of two occasions when I have voted
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against the Labour Whip. When considering the motion before the House, it is relevant to look back at the reasons why I, and many colleagues, voted against the Government on that day. I was very clear in my own mind that I did not support military action because it was not supported by a United Nations resolution. I had been particularly impressed with the work of Hans Blix and the UN weapons inspectors in the difficult situation during the months leading up to the decision to commit troops, and therefore followed every word that he said and set great store by it.

About two years after we decided to commit troops to Iraq, I attended a meeting addressed by Hans Blix in this House and was struck by what he had to say. He told us that in March 2003 it was his belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Before today’s debate, I looked at the Prime Minister’s speech from 17 March 2003. It was very clear from what he said on that day—and it has always been my judgment—that he believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. I believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but I still voted against the Government. I did so because I believe in the rule of law and that international action must be governed by the United Nations, and I took the view that we had not exhausted all available options to avoid war.

On that day, I had already made my decision. I remember coming to the debate and hearing what the Prime Minister had to say. He made his case very eloquently and powerfully. However, I had already met him to discuss the position. I met him eyeball to eyeball and asked him about weapons of mass destruction. I take the view, as I always have, that his honest belief was that those weapons existed in Iraq. I resent the constant assertions by Opposition Members that the Prime Minister in some way misled the House. I do not believe that he did; I believe that he made an honest and genuine mistake. I still believe that it was a mistake—I wish that the decision had never been made—but I cannot support the opportunistic, cynical motion that is before the House today. The nationalists are engaged in a constant campaign to slur the integrity of the Prime Minister, to attack the Labour Government and to make political capital for cheap political ends.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): My hon. Friend speaks of the mistakes that were made at the time. Indeed, in their amendment the Government talk of

from what went wrong. Does he agree that there is a widely perceived inadequacy in the inquiries that have taken place so far, which have completely failed to address the mistakes that were made or to reassure the House and the public more widely that the lessons have been learned? Does he agree that in saying that this is not the right time for a major inquiry the Government would be in a much stronger position if they were to tell us when the right time would be?

Ian Lucas: My view is that in due course there will be an inquiry into the events that led to the troops being committed. However, the issue that was key for me will not be changed by any such inquiry because, as we all know, the United Nations did not pass a resolution
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authorising military action. The issue of weapons of mass destruction was not the issue that determined my vote. I note that the Government amendment refers to declining “at this time” to have an inquiry. I will support their amendment.

Opposition Members are using the motion to obsess about the past at a time when Iraq is in a position of crisis. Last week, many of my colleagues and I heard the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, Barham Salih, address members of the parliamentary Labour party. I am sure that he addressed Opposition Members too. He said that he needs our help and that we must not “cut and run”. I opposed the war in Iraq because I believed that it was wrong, but I believe that we have a moral obligation to support the people of Iraq. We created the difficulty in Iraq and we cannot leave until that position is resolved.

Mr. Stewart Jackson rose—

Ian Lucas: I will not give way, because the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) refused to give way to me, no doubt because he was frit. Opposition Members are cynical opportunists who are exploiting the motion for cynical political ends. They should be addressing the position in Iraq today. They should be looking at the future of Iraq and listening to the elected representatives in Iraq who are saying, “We need your help—give it.” Let us stop obsessing about the past and work together for the future of Iraq.

6.26 pm

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): For personal reasons that the House will well understand, this is the first time that I have contributed formally to a debate since stepping down as leader of the Liberal Democrats. Let me put on the parliamentary record the genuine gratitude of myself and my family to colleagues on both sides of the House, in all parties, for the expressions of goodwill and support that we have enjoyed and much appreciated over the course of the past few months. I am particularly grateful to be contributing to this debate, on this of all issues, which probably consumed more of my time as leader of the Liberal Democrats than just about any other, short of fighting general election campaigns.

I have two brief backward-looking reflections that are central to the whole issue of having an inquiry now. First, during the build-up to the Iraq war, I repeatedly asked the Prime Minister during Prime Minister’s questions whether there were any circumstances—given that the Ministry of Defence must plan for all sorts of contingencies as regards any potential trouble spot anywhere in the world that might involve British forces—in which the British Government would not have backed the Americans had they decided to invade Iraq without the authority of the United Nations. That seemed a reasonable question, yet the Prime Minister never answered it. That creates the obvious suspicion that there was never a contingency in his mind that involved anything other than going in with the Americans—preferably with a second UN mandate, but if that was not forthcoming, then without it. We have subsequently read in Mr. Woodward’s book about
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assurances that the Prime Minister possibly gave, including when he met the President in Crawford at his ranch. That in itself merits a legitimate inquiry, because it has never been properly addressed by any of the inquiries that have taken place.

Secondly, I recall the role played by the Conservatives. I do not want in any way to shatter the convoluted consensus that the former leader of the Conservative party, who is now its foreign affairs spokesman, sought to fashion earlier, but we should remember the time when Conservative Members were shouting out things like “Charlie Chamberlain”—showing, I always felt, a paucity of knowledge of the history of their own parliamentary party—and failing to ask the pertinent questions about what became known as the dodgy dossier.

I can tell the House—as I had my briefing in No. 10 a few minutes later—that the Prime Minister was as taken aback as anyone when the then Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), emerged from No. 10 Downing street and announced on its steps that war was now both inevitable and desirable, which was not even the official position of the Government at that point.

The Conservatives have not exactly played their part in asking pertinent questions, which is why inquiries remain outstanding. When the Conservatives had the chance of the Butler inquiry, which we decided not to join because its remit was not sufficient, they gave their member of the committee a Privy Counsellorship so that he could join it. They then came out, but their member said that he was not coming out. He stayed in, I presume, as some kind of country club member. He continued with his Privy Counsellorship—and, of course, the Butler inquiry satisfied nobody. Worst of all, the Butler inquiry’s conclusions were dismissed by the Prime Minister in less than 60 seconds in a subsequent debate in the House.

I wish the shadow Foreign Secretary well in building convoluted consensus, of which we have a little tonight. On that track record—who knows?—he might yet form the amorphous new European conservative parliamentary grouping in Brussels on which he seems to be working so hard.

I want to address some points briefly. First, the Foreign Secretary has asked why we should request an inquiry now. The reason is that all the previous inquiries were insufficient. Does that undermine the troops? I remember going to the memorial service as party leader, and talking to parents and relatives of those who have lost their lives. Some supported the Government’s action in Iraq, and some opposed it. I asked each and every one whether it was right for me, and for us, to question the wisdom of the action. Whatever their view on the rights or wrongs of the war, they said, “Our sons and daughters have given their lives in Iraq supposedly in the name of freedom and democracy. If you people back in Westminster cannot exercise and exhibit that freedom and democracy, what were they doing there in the first place?”

Secondly, we have heard about the debate taking place in the United States against the background of the mid-term Congressional elections. Mr. Baker is no soft touch. He was the Secretary of State for the first President George Bush who was told to tell Tariq Aziz
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across the table that if the Iraqis dared to use chemical or biological weapons against the allied forces after the invasion of Kuwait, the response would be, to use his word, “disproportionate”. If, in the charged electoral context of the United States, somebody like that can play such a pivotal role, what on earth has the British House of Commons to fear from a sensible inquiry at this point?

Finally, as the goalposts have kept moving throughout this tragic episode, the Prime Minister said at one point that there was a great moral case, and at another that the action was a strategic defence of our interests, as we were under a 45-minute threat of potential obliteration. But what did he say in the final debate in the House before the fateful decision was made? Even at that late stage—the record shows it—he said that Saddam and his sons could “save their regime” if they complied with the weapons inspectors. So much for the moral argument being put forward at the time.

The truth will out one day. We will never know how many people lost their lives. On the political tombstone of this Prime Minister will be the word “Iraq”. For hundreds and thousands of innocent civilians in that country there will never be a tombstone, and we will never know their names. More than a hundred soldiers from our country, although we do know their names, are lost. The same is true of thousands of soldiers from the United States. It has been a tragedy, and the House cannot shy away from it.

6.34 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I understand that those on the Front Bench want to start the wind-up at 6.40, and I will co-operate with that.

The debate is essential, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) for securing it in the first place. It is a debate about our role as Members of Parliament in holding the Government and the Executive to account. That is what we are sent here for. That is why people vote in parliamentary elections. If we want to do something to restore people’s confidence in the democratic process in this country, we should support the motion at 7 o’clock.

We should do that for several reasons. The inquiries that are necessary into the war in Iraq might spare us involvement in future conflicts. They will open up the books and the record on what happened in the run-up to the war in 2003. In an earlier intervention, I asked the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr about just one example of that. In 2002, the Prime Minister met the President of the United States on several occasions, many summit meetings were held, troops were deployed to the theatre of war, and there were constant reports about the weapons inspectors, who were apparently having success both in ridding Iraq of any weapons of mass destruction or the ability to make them, and in reducing the appalling human rights abuses that Saddam Hussein and his regime had been committing against the people of that country. A serious process was going on.

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