The latest leak from Downing Street that the long-awaited inquiry into the Iraq War will be delayed until well after the next election in May 2010 does not come as a surprise, in view of the repeated politicising of due process over this matter for the last 6 years. The excuse for deferring the inquiry all that time – that it might undermine the morale of troops still engaged on the battlefield – is so transparent that it makes the political management of the whole process quite blatant. The inquiry into the disaster of the Gallipoli landings in 1916 was held while the war was still raging, yet there was no evidence of any loss of morale among the troops in the field. The real significance of the continual circumvention of any investigation into the causes, conduct and aftermaath of the war is that it reveals yet again the overriding power of the Executive in being able to resist what for them would be a deeply embarrassing inquiry whilst at the same time Parliament is so weak and tribalistically divided that it cannot enforce what a majority of its own members and of the public strongly believe is necessary. But the feebleness does not stop there.
The whole question of an inquiry has been stage-managed by the Government from start to finish. Previously we were told that there was no need for a further inquiry because there had already been four such inquiries. These four inquiries however were all patently flawed. The inquiry by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee was denied access to the relevant classified papers, the second by the Intelligence Services Committee was carried out in secret by a body chosen by the Prime Minister (when he himself was the main target of the inquiry) and reporting to him and not to Parliament, the third by Lord Hutton was universally derided as a whitewash, and the fourth by the Butler Committee was seen as failing to follow through its own analysis by nailing those responsible.
Now that an independent inquiry with full access to all the relevant documents has become inevitable, the political stage-managing still continues. The timing of the withdrawal of the last combatant British troops from Iraq on 31 July this year, instead of say 30 June, means that the setting up of the inquiry can be put off till the autumn (probably late October or even November after Parliament has returned), even though David Miliband assured the House (and me personally when I tackled him on this in the lobby) that he was minded to announce the inquiry and its membership early in September at latest. Now No.10 has leaked that it will be a ‘long’ inquiry, the way is open to kick it into the long grass until safely after the election.
Nor is the stage-managing limited to the timing of the inquiry. The Prime Minister will himself largely determine who will be the chair and members of the committee and what will be its terms of reference. As President Bush demonstrated in setting up his own similar inquiry into 9/11, such powers give the Head of the Government enormous leverage over its subsequent findings. Clearly Parliament should take responsibility for the selection, operation and role of the committee if the inquiry is to be seen as fully independent, objective and authoritative and if the Executive is genuinely to be held to account . Otherwise the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, are judge and jury in ther own case.
So why hasn’t Parliament taken matters into its own hands and set up its own inquiry, not just now, but 5 or 6 years ago? What is needed is a cross-party high-level body of senior Parliamentarians to establish a Business Committee of the House reflecting the balance of membership between the parties, whether through the existing Liaison Committee or as a new ad hoc initiative, which would then take responsibility for organising at least part of the agenda of the House in accordance with the wishes of Back-Benchers. That should include not only laying motions before the House for debate leading to votes at the end, but also, where agreed, setting up Commissions of Inquiry into key matters of national concern. This would be carried through whether or not the Government of the day approved.