Tony Blair is haunting the Labour party. Summoned by the clang of Brexit, he has been spotted in the pages of this magazine, and even called upon by nervous Remainers in the streets. But his ghost looms the largest in the place that was for so many years his home, the House of Commons.
Whatever the motive of the Scottish National Party to celebrate St Andrew’s Day by holding a debate on the Chilcot Inquiry, it certainly spooked Labour. Where once the word “Iraq” packed the chamber, on this November afternoon the green benches of the opposition were almost empty. Perhaps the MPs who had crammed the seats moments earlier to watch Prime Minister’s Questions had suddenly become very busy with urgent constituency work. Even Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader and a long-term critic of the war in Iraq, seemed to have vanished.
Scotland’s former First Minister and SNP MP for Gordon Alex Salmond introduced the debate, which was signed by members from seven parties. He opened with some uncomfortable number crunching.
“There are 179 members left in this house who were present when the debate took place on March 2003 on the war on Iraq,” he noted. “I remember the date exactly because it was the exactly same number of British soldiers who died in the conflict.”
Martin Docherty-Hughes, an SNP MP whose brother served on the frontline in Iraq, noted the former “member for Sedgefield” had privately observed the many consequences of invading Iraq. It seemed, he said, the “soothsayer whispering a self-fulfilling prophecy in the ear of the then-President of the United States had a clear picture of the outcome of the decision to invade Iraq.”.
The SNP described the debate as about “parliamentary accountability”. But a more accurate title would be simply “Tony Blair”.
As the SNP MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh put it: “We don’t require to be sensitive to the internal Labour party issues when choosing a topic for debate. That is their problem.”
Indeed, outspoken Iraq critics like Paul Flynn aside, those Labour MPs who did show up were bodyguards for a past leader’s legacy.
According to Ben Bradshaw, the Chilcot Inquiry was actually a vindication for a persecuted Prime Minister. “The lie that our Prime Minister lied has been paid to rest and the SNP can’t stand it,” he declared.
Ian Austin found Salmond, whose party nearly wiped out Labour in Scotland at the last election, particularly infuriating. The former First Minister, he recalled, had been against intervention in Kosovo. “You want to show some humility,” he declared. He wanted the canny Caledonian to “apologise for his lack of judgement and mistakes over the years as well”.
Liz Kendall and Pat McFadden also took up Blair’s defence. The existing “member for Sedgefield”, Phil Wilson, praised his character and also managed to mention he had known Blair since 1983.
But the most impassioned speech, perhaps, came from a hereto underappreciated Blairite – Michael Gove. “History,” declared the unloved Tory Brexiteer, “I think will judge him less harshly than some in this house do.” Deciding whether or not to go to war was “a finely balanced” act, he said.
Gove also noted that the recriminations over Iraq made it harder for the present government to intervene in Syria. “It is a dereliction of duty to look backwards, to try to blame Tony Blair, when the people of Aleppo are suffering now,” he said.
Indeed, it might be hard for Syrians cowering in their homes as bombs fall overhead to understand why the parliamentary accountability of 13 years ago was the most pressing issue to debate, or why Tony Blair needs such impassioned defending.
But they would have been more bemused still by the parliamentary tradition of the maiden speech, which saw Robert Courts, David Cameron’s successor as MP for Witney, interrupt the discussion on conflict in the Middle East with a lyrical tour of his new constituency, the “gateway to the Cotswolds”. For MPs still agonising over the ghost of progessive politics past or future, though, the detour was a welcome relief.