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25 Mar 2008 : Column 107

Mr. Blunt: I agree. The Government’s arguments are manifestly absurd; in respect of time scale, they are like rejecting an inquiry into Dunkirk just after VE-day because we are going to engage in fighting the Japanese, which might be a distraction. It is five years since this unhappy adventure was embarked on. In 1945, one could have said that an inquiry into Dunkirk would be entirely irrelevant and a matter for the historians. However, I am afraid that an inquiry into the events leading up to the Iraq war, and into our policy on the occupation since, is extremely relevant to what we continue to do—not only in Iraq, but in Afghanistan and in other conflicts in future. We cannot wait any longer; Government Ministers have only to read Hansard, listen to this debate and see where the strength of argument is coming from to know that in their heart of hearts.

The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) has the honour of chairing the Foreign Affairs Committee. He talked about R2P, the right to protect. That all links in with the Chicago doctrine and the whole idea of liberal interventionism. It is absolutely essential that we inquire into how we got into the situation and into the arguments put forward to justify our actions.

In a customarily brilliant speech—on this occasion without any specialist advice, I am impressed to say—my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea referred to Jonathan Powell’s statement that he and others did not know that more troops would be needed. I am afraid that that argument does not wash. The previous chief of the US army staff told Donald Rumsfeld that more troops would be required and that the forces provided were wholly inadequate for the occupation; his reward was to be sidelined and shuffled out. We should honour him for the fact that he did give advice. The Americans cannot say—nor can the British at the most senior levels—that they did not receive serious advice that the strategy on which we were embarked was wrong.

I agree with nearly all that my right hon. and learned Friend said. He was certainly right that containment was working and that sanctions were not. When I worked for my right hon. and learned Friend at the Foreign Office, it was my view that at some point we would have to face up to the failure of the oil-for-food programme. That is why I have significant sympathy for people such as the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). When they voted for the Government motion in 2003, that was about business unfinished since the ceasefire in 1991.

From what I know of it, the legal case presented by the then Attorney-General hung round the failure of Iraq to observe the terms of the 1991 ceasefire. The argument made to the people of the United States was that the issue was about al-Qaeda—it was painfully apparent that that was false. The problem was that that argument could not be made in the United Kingdom, as we had not been attacked by al-Qaeda. Of course, here the arguments made were that it was about weapons of mass destruction.

We need an inquiry to identify what happened in the decision-making process. I want to know how it is that I, as a Member of Parliament, ended up voting for the Government’s resolution. I watched the performances of the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, probably from
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right where I am standing now, in September 2002 and in March 2003. I thought that I knew when he was not being entirely direct with the House and that I could spot when things were different. Those performances were of a totally different quality from anything that he had produced on any other occasion in the House of Commons, and he was always a fantastic performer in this Chamber. He really believed it, and that was what I was being told by friends of mine who remained in the Army and were briefing him to say that he was entirely up for this and convinced of its necessity. I am afraid that that faith in its necessity, combined, it would appear, with the faith of the President of the United States in its necessity, and the opportunity presented by 9/11 to move on to unfinished business in Iraq, blinded senior policy makers at all levels to the consequences of what they were doing.

I want to know the detail of what happened in October 2001 in the discussions between Rumsfeld and Cheney and at senior levels of the Bush Administration about 9/11 providing the opportunity to “do” Iraq. I want the then Prime Minister questioned about what happened in Crawford, Texas in April 2002, when the United Kingdom became irredeemably committed to that course of action. All the policies that flowed from that decision, with British officers getting involved in CENTCOM and the planning that took place during the summer, meant that by July 2002 the thing was rolling down a military track and was not going to stop. I do not know when the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) received his briefing from CENTCOM, but my understanding would be that this was happening six months before he went there. Everything was running to a military timetable in order to get the invasion of Iraq under way in spring because people would not have wanted to delay it until the summer, for entirely understandable military reasons. At that point, the military timetable overtook all the other considerations. The doubts that were being thrown in about the intelligence and other issues became irrelevant to the key policy makers as they drove the process forward.

An important lesson that an inquiry should be able to get to the bottom of is how we can put the brakes on at a policy-making level inside Government and in Parliament. Today, the Justice Secretary came to the House to explain about this Chamber’s involvement in war-making votes in future. That is of direct relevance to an inquiry. For ex-soldiers like me, it was not realistic to ask me to vote about 12 hours—or 36 hours; I cannot remember now—before H-hour and troops going over the front line, and to pull the plug on a huge operation that had been months in the planning by suddenly saying, “Sorry, the British aren’t coming.” We were providing more than a third of the forces to invade southern Iraq; the military and strategic decisions had been taken. We were placed in an impossible position. Immediately before the soldiers were committed to action, with their battle procedure almost complete for going across the starting line, we were being invited to pull the rug out from underneath them. That would have been another consideration of mine in deciding to support the Government.

My view was that that the Saddam Hussein issue had to be resolved and that 9/11 had given the President of the United States the freedom of manoeuvre to act on
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Iraq and resolve it; that is why I supported the action. I should have followed the advice from slightly wiser quarters like those whom I previously worked for and with in the Foreign Office. I was profoundly wrong in not identifying the consequences that we have unleashed on the middle east and the world.

We need an inquiry to understand the damage done to the United Kingdom’s position in the middle east. I take a significant interest in the region and travel there frequently. Wherever one goes there, one finds that friends of the UK are appalled at our failure to exercise more influence on the United States throughout the course of the disastrous strategy leading up to the invasion and during the conduct of the occupation as well. They expected much more of the United Kingdom, given our history and our association with the region. Tragically, we utterly failed to deliver and our standing in the middle east has taken a hammering as a result. It is vital to the British interest that we somehow address that damage to our standing and start to put it right.

As my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary made clear, books on the subject are now being published by figures such as Sir Hilary Synnott. Rory Stewart wrote an excellent book on the conduct of the occupation in Iraq, Paul Bremer has burst into print, and so has the former chief of the general staff—everyone is writing their account. We need an inquiry so that senior Members of both Houses can bring together all that testimony in a sensible, disciplined way, as proposed by the motion, to try to draw the sensible lessons we must learn from the appalling tragedy that has overtaken Iraq as a consequence of our policy.

Finally, I want to turn to today’s events in Basra, which was one of the arguments advanced by the Foreign Secretary as to why now is not the time for an inquiry. In April 2004, I and other members of the Defence Committee were taken to Basra, and we were proudly shown British police officers, and Northern Ireland police officers, training Iraqi policemen. We were taken to three different police stations—it took up about half of the time we had in Basra—where we were shown different groups of policemen going through riot training and so on. But even with the level of investment we had put into training police in Basra, we completely failed to avoid their being highly penetrated by militias competing for power there.

If we had given our international development aid to one thing alone, it should have been to payment of the police to get control of their human resources policy. We could then have sacked people who did not match our standards. If we had paid the police at the same rates paid to police in the UK, we would have achieved an enormous amount more than we did in the past five years. The importance of how the police are treated in the establishment of the rule of law in a country was a lesson learned in Bosnia. We have identified that problem all too plainly in Iraq, and we are making the same mistake in Afghanistan now.

The police in Afghanistan are highly corrupt and in the hands of drugs barons and local warlords. The entire shop in Afghanistan is bet on the Afghan national army at some point being able to face down the police forces around the country in order to retake control for the central Government.

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Mr. Bob Ainsworth: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Blunt: If the Minister will forgive me, I have about 20 seconds left, and I will not get any extra time as I usually would.

I know that the Government understand this point; it is a lesson to which they will need to direct significant resources. A proper inquiry into what has gone wrong in Iraq will strengthen the Government’s hand in making their case for what we need to do in Afghanistan.

8.53 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), who spoke lucidly and forcefully. At one time, he was my deputy in Northern Ireland and in those days we used to agree with each other rather more frequently than we do now, but I shall endeavour to explain why I find myself rather a long way from him on this issue.

I shall focus narrowly on two issues. I shall not focus on whether we should have taken military action in Iraq or on the issues that ought to be the subject of an eventual inquiry, or even on whether we ought to have an inquiry at some stage. That is common ground in the House, which has emerged clearly from the debate. The issues I shall focus on are why we are having the debate on this motion, and on the arguments for having an inquiry now rather than later—and even more importantly, the arguments for not having one now.

The reason for tabling the motion has not been addressed. Anyone who listened to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) when he introduced the debate, and attempted to take his words seriously and at face value, would suppose that the Conservative party had invented the idea of an inquiry on the military operation in Iraq and had consistently been in favour of it. Nothing of the kind is the case. The Welsh and the Scottish nationalists devised the idea. At the time, I was a member of the Conservative party and I assumed, based on the party’s reaction to such things in past years, or at least in past generations, that, as soon as it saw such opportunistic and irresponsible nonsense emerging on the horizon, it would reject it without further ado. To my horror, I found that that is not the way in which the modern Tory party works.

The modern Tory party sees a bandwagon, thinks it might pick up some short-term party political benefit, and, without caring about the issue, jumps straight on it. I expressed my public disagreement in 2006 with the Tory party’s conduct on the important matter that we are discussing. I think that the Tories were a bit miffed and felt that they had missed a trick—“trick” is the right word for such a ploy—because the Scottish and the Welsh nationalists had thought of the idea first. They were determined to appropriate it if they could and, on another Opposition day last June, they tabled a motion calling for an inquiry, taking credit for the idea themselves.

Why does an inquiry have such appeal for the Conservative party? The answer is plain. The Conservative party voted overwhelmingly for military action in Iraq and I was part of that—I had better say that now so
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that there is no doubt about it. I was a member of the shadow Cabinet when we decided to support the Government on the matter, for reasons that I do not regret. However, leaving that aside, the Conservative party has that record and cannot do anything about it. On the other hand, it has noticed that the Iraq war is not popular and would like to gain some party political advantage from that and attack the Government.

How do the Conservatives attack the Government without saying that they were wrong about the Iraq war and facing some humiliation for doing that? The answer is that they call for an inquiry—which is irresponsible for reasons that I shall outline shortly, and could not realistically be accepted by any remotely responsible Government—and thus gain some short-term party political advantage. Such conduct from a major party and pretended alternative Government is beneath contempt. It is one of the major reasons that I do not sit on the Conservative side of the House any more.

Let me consider why I believe that it would be irresponsible to hold an inquiry now. There are three reasons. First, there is a general principle that, when one’s military forces are engaged in combat, one can responsibly do only two things: support them to the hilt or pull them out. It is impossible to be half pregnant; there is no easy halfway house. A public inquiry is not a Select Committee inquiry—in democratic countries, Select Committees always have the right to conduct an inquiry into anything, of course. It is not an inquiry into a matter, albeit important in itself, that is marginal to the main issue, such as the death of Dr. Kelly. An official public inquiry into whether we should be in a particular place, when we are asking our serving men and women to risk their lives there, is inconceivable and wrong. We should not even think about doing such a thing.

We owe it to our troops—we all agree about how extraordinarily gallant they have been—not to sow the seeds of doubt about the rationale for their being in that situation and putting their lives at risk, which they do every day. There are strong reasons for not pulling out of Iraq now. We cannot let down the nascent Iraqi democracy, which has a chance of success. I do not know how great the chance is—perhaps not overwhelming, but certainly not minuscule. We owe Iraqi democracy a chance. We also owe it to our allies not to let them down, particularly when the Americans have bravely launched their surge campaign, which has yielded encouraging results.

Those are good reasons why we can legitimately ask our serving men and women to continue to risk their lives in Iraq, but we should not raise any doubt. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) so eloquently said, the signal that we would send out by starting such an inquiry at this time would be amplified and distorted by the press in this country and, no doubt, by malevolent forces in the middle east. That is a major reason of constant principle why we should never do such a thing.

I am glad to say that we are a democracy that, traditionally, has been extraordinarily responsible in its conduct of anything to do with our armed forces, and we have never dreamt of holding such an inquiry at such a time before. We have already heard the examples
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of the Dardanelles campaign, when the inquiry did not take place until the year after, the Franks report on the Falklands conflict, which did not take place until the Argentines had surrendered, and the Norway debate, which was just a debate, of course. There was some doubt about that in the minds of those on the Opposition Front Bench, so let me remind them that the debate took place several weeks after the last British soldier and sailor had been withdrawn from Narvik. There is no doubt that that consideration has been a constant principle, and it should remain one.

Secondly, there is the practical issue of interrupting operations on the ground by having to question soldiers, sailors and airmen who are currently involved in the campaign. That is not an overwhelming consideration, but it is a real one. It is not true that if we had such an inquiry, we would not need to question those engaged in operations in Iraq. Very much to the contrary: General Rollo, who is currently the deputy commander of coalition forces in Iraq, served in Iraq—in a two-star role, if I recall—a few years ago. He is exactly the sort of person who most certainly would need to be summoned back to such an inquiry. What an extraordinarily irresponsible thing it would be to summon the deputy commanding officer in the middle of a campaign to be interrogated by the Privy Council, presumably in public.

The third reason has not been raised this evening, but it is possibly the most overwhelming one of all. If we were to have an honest public inquiry, and if we were to say that the electorate and the public had a right to know all the detail and that the truth would all come out—that is the only honest basis on which to have an inquiry, and I hope to God that we would never have a public inquiry in this country that was anything other than honest—we would have to go into all the issues that determine the success, the limited success, the failure or otherwise of the operation in Iraq. That includes matters such as logistics, capabilities and tactics, as well as intelligence, which is vital in any counter-insurgency or counter-terrorist campaign.

Are we going to have a public inquiry telling al-Qaeda and all the militia in Iraq how good or how bad our intelligence is, has been or may continue to be? Do we want to tell them the breakdown of our intelligence among signals intelligence, visual surveillance and human intelligence? Do we want to tell them how good our infiltration of terrorist or insurgent operations might be or how good we estimate their infiltration of the Iraq defence forces or police has been? Are we really going to go into those matters?

Are even those on the Front Bench of the modern Conservative party, in its appalling state of mind—in its complete rejection of any sense of responsible government and its willingness to try to make political capital irrespective of the importance or the sanctity of the issues involved—seriously going to tell the House tonight that we should go into all those issues in public now, thereby giving comfort and support to our enemies who desire the death of our servicemen and women who are deployed in theatre? I trust that the whole House will give a resounding negative answer to that question.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I tell hon. Members that we are planning to start the wind-ups at half-past 9? Three
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speakers are seeking to catch my eye, and I would be extremely grateful if they would tailor their contributions to that time scale.

9.4 pm

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): My goodness, we know how threadbare the Government’s case is on Iraq when the only Back-Bench speaker who has resolutely and staunchly supported the Government Front-Bench position is a Conservative party switcher who has changed sides in the House—that famous socialist, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies).

I would like to highlight two other speakers, however. Most of us who have taken the time to be in the Chamber throughout the day cannot but have been moved in no small order by the contributions of the hon. Members for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) and for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). We heard from the hon. Member for Stockton, North of the personal challenge of being spoken to by his Prime Minister and of being appealed to over his own conscience to back his own Government. That is the most difficult situation for any politician in any political party, and it took some guts for him to come to the House and say that he had been wrong. I respect him immensely for that. The hon. Member for Reigate described similar experiences in wrestling with his conscience.

I want to start by praising all those in the service community who serve in our name. I represent more servicemen and women than any other Member of Parliament from Scotland, and I do so with great pride, regardless of where those personnel come from. Members of the House will recognise that I would wish to organise Scotland’s defence in line with that of all normal, independent countries. All those people have served and put their lives on the line, whether they are from Scotland, England, Wales or Northern Ireland, and I do not forget those from other nations, including Fiji, South Africa and the Irish Republic, who have died in our name.

It is worth putting it on the record that the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru were opposed to the war from the start, and it is worth remembering that we have been calling for an inquiry from the start. We have used the limited time that we have at our disposal in the House of Commons to hold a debate on 9 March 2004 on publication of the Attorney-General’s advice. My colleague, the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), led persuasively in that debate. We were then the first political party to offer our own time in the cause of pursuing an inquiry, which we did on 31 October 2006. Interestingly, the wording of the motion on that occasion was drawn together by Members on both sides of the House in order to ensure maximum support.

Mr. Quentin Davies: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Angus Robertson: I want to make some progress in order to give other Members time to speak. I will therefore decline the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I hope that he will understand.

Now, on this, the third opportunity, I hope that many Labour Members will, for the first time, vote for an inquiry.

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