When Blair embarked upon the Iraq tragedy, he was at the height of his potential power. He had led Labour to two record, landslide general election wins, and seemed to have total command of the political landscape.
He knew perfectly well that the reckless path he was about to take posed grave dangers; but still he persisted. I knew from first-hand experience how stubborn he was, and how weak his cabinet colleagues were. Furthermore, on Iraq, those challenging Blair knew that the bulk of the Tories were more gung-ho than he was.
My first hurdle in marshalling parliamentary opposition was to persuade the Speaker to allow a back bench amendment to be taken – I managed to get his agreement. Then there was the task of rallying support from other parties. The Lib Dems were on board as were the Scots Nats. The Tories and Ulster Unionists were with Blair, other than a handful of independently-minded Conservatives. The crunch was how the Labour Party members would go.
I drew up a rather bland amendment to encourage as much parliamentary support as possible, and dissuaded the Campaign Group – John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, in effect – from tabling a rival amendment. On the day – March 18th, 2003 – the Speaker called me to move the amendment after Blair had moved his resolution, and then Tory leader Iain Duncan-Smith had wholeheartedly supported him.
Naturally, as the two principal party leaders, they had as long as they wished to make their case. As a backbencher, the rules allowed me only eight minutes (Blair had spoken to a carefully crafted speech for three-quarters of an hour) to make the case against war. The outcome of that debate is now history, and Chilcot has established the truth of the case against the war.
The political lesson is to take “leaders” with a huge pinch of salt. Decide for yourself what is right and wrong on the basis of the evidence available, and act accordingly. At the very least, you will be at ease with yourself and able to sleep at night. Moreover, you will be surprised just how much support you get from displaying political integrity. Failure to do so, on the other hand, can bring down contempt on you – just ask Tony Blair.