Labour survived yesterday's Conservative attempts to force an inquiry into the Iraq war. Twelve Labour MPs voted with the Opposition but William Hague's arguments (summarised on our Parliament pages) were not enough to persuade more Government backbenchers to defy their whip.
Yesterday's motion was an attempt by the Conservatives to say something about a war that is now five years old. Many Conservatives genuinely believe that there will be benefits from an inquiry but many others simply see this exercise as a way of putting the Government on the back foot. One Tory MP, Mark Field, admitted as much on Radio 4's Westminster Hour on Sunday night. Tory opponents of the Iraq war were most evident in yesterday's Commons debate. They hope that a key result of an inquiry will be further public opposition to the Iraq war and to a hawkish foreign policy.
Our key question is this: Should a call for an inquiry into the origins of the Iraq war really be the top priority of the Conservative Opposition?
Most of the current Tory leadership - David Cameron, William Hague, George Osborne, David Davis, Liam Fox - all voted for the Iraq war five years ago. They may have a responsibility to investigate the background to their 2003 votes - and, more importantly, the votes of the governing party - but they also have a responsibility to see the liberation of Iraq concluded in the most satisfactory way possible.
But on the one strategic decision that has delivered most improvement to the people of Iraq - the Petraeus-led troops surge - the Conservative frontbench has been silent. We asked CCHQ yesterday for a statement in support of the surge. Nothing was forthcoming and nothing apparently exists from the last 12 months. There have even been attempts to attribute the reduction in violence to other factors.
Britain could not have delivered a troops surge for southern Iraq because Labour has left our armed forces under-resourced and over-stretched. The Conservatives' response to this situation has also been inadequate. We have failed to make the case for the rebuilding of Britain's armed forces. There's no new money on the table for our military although the defence of Britain should be any Government's first and overriding priority. ConservativeHome proposed our own modest plan for £3bn of extra defence spending a couple of weeks ago.
The coming together of evil men, rogue regimes and devastating weapons technology is the security challenge of our time. Yesterday's debate didn't take us much closer to a coherent Conservative response to that challenge.