This is an important debate, as illustrated by the quality of the opening speech from the Opposition and of the Government's response. National security is surely the most important responsibility of any Government and committing our armed forces is the most serious decision ever taken by a Government. Parliament ought to be central to that decision. As a party, we have long supported the principle of parliamentary approval for participation in armed conflict. On
"no commitment to introduce legislation to clarify the responsibility of the Prime Minister to Parliament, particularly in relation to the prerogative powers and the role of Parliament in matters of war and peace".—[ Hansard, 1 December 2004; Vol. 428, c. 742.]
In October 2005, Liberal Democrat Members were present in significant numbers to support the Armed Forces (Parliamentary Approval for Participation in Armed Conflict) Bill, which was promoted by Clare Short and owed a great deal to Mr. Gerrard. The Bill had significant cross-party support. Accordingly, we will support the Conservative motion in the Lobby.
We are entitled to pause to reflect on the significance of the change of heart that the motion represents. While the Chancellor might have missed the vote in 2004 on our amendment to the Humble Address, Mr. Cameron, who is now the Leader of the Opposition, voted against it. The following year, on Second Reading of the private Member's Bill introduced by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood, the Conservative spokesman made a speech in which he identified no fewer than six or seven major areas of concern. The motion thus marks quite a turnaround. However, I must give credit to the shadow Foreign Secretary because he was a sponsor of the right hon. Lady's Bill and had gone on record about the matter before the Public Administration Committee as early as March 2004. Even with his famous powers of persuasion, he must be quietly pleased that he has turned Conservative thinking so thoroughly on its head in the period since then, not least in the absence of any significant new developments or tests of principle since his leader voted against the very idea only two and a half years ago.
With a few honourable exceptions, Conservative Members are in the midst of a public U-turn. However, the Government's position is nowhere near as clear cut. Few would be surprised that Labour Members voted against our amendment to the Humble Address in 2004, or would need any reminder that the Minister for Europe, the then Leader of the House, effectively talked out the Armed Forces (Parliamentary Approval for Participation in Armed Conflict) Bill in October 2005. However, something odd has certainly happened. The Government seem to be changing their mind for some strange reason, even though, as the Leader of the House pointed out, his credentials on the matter go back a very long time.
The trouble is that the change is happening in awkward slow motion, which means that the Government amendment is a curious creation. We cannot entirely put that down to the fact that it was drafted on a Sunday, probably somewhere a long way from the House. The Government are edging in the right direction through the amendment, but they cannot quite bring themselves to accept wholeheartedly the principle of parliamentary approval for our forces' participation in armed conflict. The amendment states that following the votes held before the beginning of the conflict in Iraq,
"it is inconceivable that any Government would in practice depart from this precedent".
It also says:
"the time has come for Parliament's role to be made more explicit"— whatever that means. Although, as ever, the Leader of the House made an elegant and entertaining speech, he did not quite spell out what he had in mind. At the risk of being churlish—