Friday, January 26, 2007
The Great Warlord goes missing.
When it comes to a debate on Iraq, Tony Blair goes missing
By Colin Brown, Andrew Grice and Ben Russell
Published: 25 January 2007
Tony Blair has been accused of treating the House of Commons with
contempt by failing to stay in the chamber to hear MPs protest about
disastrous handling of the chaos in Iraq.
As MPs yesterday staged the first Iraq debate in government time since
the war, the Prime Minister retreated to the quiet of his oak-panelled
office behind the Speaker's chair to prepare for a series of private
meetings on more pressing matters - the row over gay adoption, a weekly
briefing with a handful of senior backbenchers, and a speech to the
Mr Blair could have cleared his diary to be in the chamber for the
awaited debate. However, he found the prospect of the CBI conference at
a London hotel a mile from Parliament more congenial.
After 30 minutes of interrogation from MPs at Prime Minister's Question
Time, he slipped out of the chamber by the Speaker's chair to his room
and grabbed a snack lunch with his close aides. MPs from all sides
showed their disapproval of his policy on Iraq - and his refusal to
respect for those who paid the price for that failure - by filling the
chamber to hear the debate.
Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, criticised him for
refusing to stay for the occasion. Even Sir Menzies's own MPs were
surprised by the ferocity of his attack, as he savaged Mr Blair,
"What could be more important than that the Prime Minister should be
here to debate the issue of Iraq at a time when British forces are at
risk every day ... Isn't that the kind of leadership we are entitled
Ten minutes later, as Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, stood at
the dispatch box to open the debate, Mr Blair settled down in his
private room at the Commons with his aides, and prepared for a meeting
about Northern Ireland with the Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the
Democratic Unionist Party.
In the chamber, a short stroll away, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former
foreign secretary, protested at Mr Blair's absence, saying: "As the
disastrous conflict in Iraq has rightly been referred to as Blair's
what is so important about the Prime Minister's engagements this
afternoon that he is not able to be present in the House to take part
the first debate on Iraq in government time since the war itself
At 1.45 pm, after Mr Paisley left, two Labour MPs, Angela Eagle and
Chris Bryant, were shown into Mr Blair's office to discuss the row over
an opt-out for the Roman Catholic church over gay adoption.
Meanwhile, in the chamber, William Hague, Mrs Beckett's shadow, pointed
to the government front bench where Mr Blair had been, and contrasted
Blair's absence with some of his more statesmanlike predecessors.
"It is unimaginable that an Attlee or a Callaghan or a Churchill or a
Thatcher would not have been here to debate a situation in war," said
Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party leader, added: "Why was he so
anxious to talk us into this disastrous war but so reluctant to explain
how we are going to get out of it?"
At 2.40 pm, Mr Blair's black Daimler swung into the afternoon traffic
take him the short distance to the Victoria Park Plaza Hotel for a
speech and question-and-answer session with the CBI. But the Prime
Minister did not entirely escape the shadow of Iraq. As he arrived at
the hotel, he was greeted by a group of 20 anti-war demonstrators
shouting: "Tony, Tony, Tony, why aren't you in Parliament?"
Inside the conference, there was no mention of Iraq. "This is my second
question time of the day; I think you are more polite than my first
audience," he told CBI representatives.
When Mr Blair was asked what he would do if he could write his
legacy on a blank sheet of paper, he hoped it would be ensuring public
support for taxpayer-funded public services. However, he conceded that
his overall legacy would be written by others - perhaps an acceptance
that for the vast majority of people, it would be Iraq.
Tory officials later accused Mr Blair of getting his priorities wrong,
pointing out that David Cameron pulled out of the CBI's annual
conference last November to visit British troops in Iraq.
At 3.45 pm, the Prime Minister's official spokesman defended Mr Blair,
saying he would report to the Commons after Operation Sinbad was
concluded in Basra, which would be "the important point of decision" on
the role of British troops in Iraq.
By that time, Mr Blair was back at Downing Street, possibly
contemplating his final months in office and his legacy in a country