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MPs reject probe on whether Tony Blair misled Commons over Iraq war

Published 30/11/2016

The SNP wants a committee to probe differences between Tony Blair's public statements and private correspondence with George W Bush ahead of the 2003 invasion
The SNP wants a committee to probe differences between Tony Blair's public statements and private correspondence with George W Bush ahead of the 2003 invasion

MPs have overwhelmingly rejected calls for a parliamentary investigation on whether Tony Blair misled the Commons, with Labour saying he should not be a "scapegoat".

The SNP wants the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to probe any differences between the former Labour prime minister's public statements and private correspondence with then US president George W Bush ahead of the 2003 invasion.

But despite the non-binding motion attracting cross-party support, Labour and Conservative MPs joined forces to vote it down by 439 votes to 70, majority 369.

Five Labour MPs and six Conservatives were among those who voted in favour of the motion.

During the debate, Cabinet Office minister Chris Skidmore said there is "no merit" in further inquiries into the Iraq war.

And shadow foreign office minister Fabian Hamilton, who voted against the 2003 invasion, said the SNP motion risked "distracting" the Commons and the committee from its "true objective" of learning the "real lessons" of the Chilcot inquiry.

He also launched a defence of Mr Blair, telling MPs he did not believe the former PM had acted in "bad faith" when making the case for war.

The six Tories who backed the motion were: Sir David Amess (Southend West); Bob Blackman (Harrow East); Philip Davies (Shipley); Sir Roger Gale (North Thanet); Philip Hollobone (Kettering); and Stephen McPartland (Stevenage).

The five Labour MPs who supported it were: Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley); Paul Flynn (Newport West); Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow); Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North); and Dennis Skinner (Bolsover).

Labour MPs were on a one-line whip, meaning they could back the SNP motion without fear of sanction.

Speaking for Labour during the debate, Mr Hamilton said: "There are many serious lessons to learn from the Chilcot report ... but in terms of learning those lessons, we will do ourselves and future governments no favours if we spend even more time in this House and in the committee rooms examining contentions that the Chilcot report and four other inquiries - at exhaustive length - have already found to be incorrect.

"Nor will any of us benefit if we continue to try and turn a collective institutional and international failure in Iraq into an attempt to pillory or scapegoat one individual.

"Let me be clear, I totally disagreed - as many others did - with Tony Blair on the Iraq war.

"I voted against our government because I thought that our prime minister of the day was simply wrong.

"But never for one second did I believe he was acting in bad faith and I do not do so now."

Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas said freedom of information requests had demonstrated the Chilcot Inquiry had been "designed to avoid blame", prompting groans from Labour MPs.

Tory former cabinet minister Ken Clarke warned SNP MP Alex Salmond against "personalising" the Chilcot report.

Former Scottish first minister Mr Salmond said he believed the public was "grievously misled into that disastrous conflict" by Mr Blair.

But Mr Clarke suggested a focus on Mr Blair risked relegating the important issue of ensuring that such a "catastrophic foreign policy decision" is not repeated.

Mr Salmond said the Chilcot report concluded that "this was very much a personal campaign by the prime minister" as he said parliamentary accountability could act as a barrier to any repeat.

He told Mr Clarke: "There are committees of this House who have been examining the conduct of the processes of government and if you read the very committee we intend to refer the question of parliamentary accountability to, the minutes of the meeting they had with the cabinet secretary, I don't think you will find much reassurance that there has been a tremendous advance in the process of government, and the overwhelming impression is that a headstrong prime minister could still create a situation where sofa government drove a country into an illegal war.

"I suggest that parliamentary accountability, that an examination of statements made to Parliament and public against the facts as we now know them, would be a valuable additional sanction and tool in restraining future prime ministers from any such course of events."

The Chilcot report found that former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein posed "no imminent threat" at the time of the invasion of his country in 2003, and the war was started on the basis of "flawed" intelligence.

Its publication led to calls for the prosecution of Mr Blair, but the former PM insisted that, while he felt sorrow for those whose loved ones died, he stood by his decision to commit Britain to the US-led military action.

Labour MP Ian Austin (Dudley North), who was an adviser to Gordon Brown at the time of the war, claimed the SNP had brought debates on Chilcot, Trident renewal and House of Lords reform to divide the Labour Party rather than represent their constituents.

He said: "Instead of choosing to debate issues that people in Scotland worry about day in, day out - education, health service, housing - they come here to score party political points, choosing motion after motion to divide the Labour Party.

"That's what this is about.

"And they should be treated with contempt."

Gesturing to Mr Salmond and with his voice rising in indignation, Mr Austin added: "Look at him laughing, as if Iraq is a subject of humour, as if it's a joke."

Labour MP Paul Flynn (Newport West), a fierce critic of the war, said: "We know that during that debate, 139 of my comrades on the Labour benches voted against the war.

"It was a courageous thing to do, because we were under great pressure, but there were 50 others who had grave doubts about the war.

"They were, in my view, bribed, bullied and bamboozled into voting the wrong way and many of them have regretted it very much since then."

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