Iraq Inquiry Debate
Asked whether the Prime Minister would be taking part in the Iraq debate today, the PMOS said the Prime Minister and the Government were very clear in their view of the issue at the core of this. As the PMOS had said yesterday, and as the Government motion acknowledged, we continued to learn lessons all the time in Iraq, and apply those lessons.
The PMOS had no doubt at all that at the end of our engagement there people would want to look back and learn the lessons. However, the time to deal with that was then not now. Not least because what you had to think about, as he had said yesterday, was not the headlines here, but in Iraq. That headline needed to say we were determined to see the job done and keep the focus on what that job was. That job was, at a political level, to support the democratically elected Government of Iraq, which had been elected last December. It was a multi-ethnic representative Government, which because of its very nature was a difficult and considerable achievement, particularly against the backdrop of terrorism. In spite of that you had to finish the job, and keep the focus, as we were in Basra on the combination of security plus reconstruction. That was what the Government wanted to keep the focus on, and that was where we wanted to keep the message that we were sending to Iraq.
Asked whether journalists would have to wait to see if the Prime Minister took part in the debate, the PMOS said the debate would be opened on the Government side by Margaret Beckett and would be closed by Adam Ingram. That was the normal level for this sort of debate.
Asked whether the format for learning these lessons at the end could be some form of committee, the PMOS said the time to deal with that would be then, not now. The PMOS reminded journalists of what he said yesterday: everyone knew what the headlines would be if this motion were to be carried. Everyone needed to be realistic about it. What sort of message would it send to Iraq.
Put that even the Government amendment did not rule out some sort of post mortem, the PMOS said that it was common sense and common practice to learn lessons as you went along and then at the end of an engagement of this depth and duration to look back for broader lessons, but the time to think about that was then, not now. It should not be done during a conflict. It should be after it. Today people needed to consider the effect of the motion put down being carried and the knock on effect it would have in Iraq tomorrow.
Asked whether he was suggesting that those who voted against were undermining security, the PMOS said that he was driving at the point that you could not afford to send a message of doubt or weakness when you had troops in active service overseas. This Government would not do that. Everyone needed to acknowledge the message we would be sending, not just to our troops but those they had to fight, if we did such a thing.
Asked what that headline would be, the PMOS said it would be "Government forced to concede". That would be seen as a message of weakness. Put that the suggestion was that those calling for an inquiry were sending a signal that undermined the morale of our troops, the PMOS said that he did not want to comment on the motives of people who were proposing other motions. He was simply trying to address the real impact this would have in Iraq. It was a very real debate with very real consequences for our soldiers on the ground.
Asked about the difference between a debate now and one during World War II when there had been debates on particular engagements, the PMOS said that there were debates all the time. That was different from saying you would set up an inquiry which would cast doubt over your own commitment to finishing the job.
Put that by saying lessons could be learned at some point in the future was he steering the press in the direction of some form of inquiry at some future date, the PMOS said that he was saying that there was a perfectly common sense analysis here. The time to decide how you could learn the lessons was then and not now. What point could be achieved by making a decision now when engagement was ongoing and you understood the implicit headline tomorrow. You continued to learn lessons as you went along and no doubt at some point in the future people would want to look back at the overall lessons to be learnt.
Put that an inquiry could be a positive thing, the PMOS said firstly, that we had already had 4 inquiries about the decision making leading up to the war. Secondly, you had to ask what the real impact of that would be. He knew how the media worked here and in Iraq. It would be negative headlines.
Asked whether he accepted there was a difference between the inquiry being called for now and the earlier ones of Hutton and Butler, the PMOS said that he would not comment on other people’s proposals. The Government was focused on the precise impact of this motion.
Asked whether there had been 3 or 4 previous inquires and would this end of engagement lessons exercise be a ministerial audit, the PMOS said that the ISC, FAC, Butler and Hutton inquiries were imprinted on some people’s minds. The question however presented the image of a very good spin bowl drifting slowly towards the crease and then turning sharply off the pitch towards the stumps. A Channel 4 speciality. The PMOS said the question was a clever attempt to make him get ahead of himself and comment on the future instead of talking about now. This he would not do.
Put that Jack Straw had said that Franks was the precedent for Butler in 2004 so what had changed since then, the PMOS said that it had been about how the war started not about an ongoing conflict. That was keyword- ongoing.
Asked whether the Prime Minister would be working from Downing Street this afternoon, the PMOS said that he would not brief on the Prime Minister’s precise movements for the obvious reasons. Put that the Prime Minister had said just last week that he was happy to debate Iraq anytime anywhere, the PMOS said that remained the case, but there was a difference between having a completely open debate, which we had, and setting up a formal inquiry.
Put that the Prime Minister’s participation in the debate would underline his commitment, the PMOS said that he did not think anyone could doubt the Prime Minister’s resolution on this. If journalists looked at his track record; if they counted the number of times, even in controversial circumstances, when he had outlined his position such as at PMQs and numerous other occasions it could not be doubted. However, it was not just the Prime Minister’s policy it was the Government’s policy in Iraq and as such it was entirely appropriate that other senior members of the Government outlined that policy as well. Asked to set out for absolute clarity if the vote was lost whether the Prime Minister would set up an inquiry, the PMOS said that, for absolute clarity, he did not deal in hypothetical questions. People should wait to see what happened.
Put that if the signal was so important why would he not tell journalists if the Prime Minister would be in the chamber sat next to the Foreign Secretary as was normal practice, the PMOS said, as journalists were all aware, that was not quite the normal practice. The journalist had gone on too long and undermined his own question. However the Prime Minister fully backed his Foreign Secretary in the debate.
Asked why, if we were intent on establishing democracy in Iraq, we were frightened to demonstrate it here, the PMOS said that again the premise of the question wrong. It had gone from shaky in the last one to being built on sand in this one. Journalists should look back and count how many times the Prime Minister had spoken on the floor of the House of Commons about Iraq. Then check how much time he had spent talking about Iraq at monthly press conferences. Then check how many interviews he had given when the subject had been Iraq. It was a lot. They would still be counting by the end of the week. Asked why the Prime Minister would not be at the debate, the PMOS said that as always he had important meetings in Downing Street but we should still wait and see.
Briefing took place at 13:00 | Search for related news
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