Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 6:25 pm on 15th May 2007.

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Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow 6:25 pm, 15th May 2007

Normally, when I attend debates and hear agreement between Ministers and Opposition Front Benchers I am immediately suspicious. Today, I shall make an exception, because an important development is taking place along lines for which I and some other Members have been arguing for some time. As I pointed out earlier, I introduced a private Member's Bill on the subject in January 2005. It had cross-party support and in the following year my right hon. Friend Clare Short took the matter up again after the 2005 general election.

Over the past two or three years, there has been a change of opinion and in the degree of support for our views. In late 2004, I tabled an early-day motion that attracted 149 signatures; by 2005, a similar motion received 233 signatures. The shift is continuing. Mr. Hague suggested that it had occurred among only Labour Members, but it has actually occurred on both sides of the House. In 2004, seven Conservative Members signed my early-day motion; by 2005, 36 of the 233 signatures were Conservative. In the opening speeches and in the interventions made on the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, I still detected unease among some Conservative Back Benchers about not only the Government's proposals but those of their Front-Bench team.

The general mood and general opinion have shifted. Mr. Clarke said that only the converts are in the Chamber, but there has been a significant change and the general view on both sides of the House is that Parliament should be involved in what is probably the most important decision that we can make—sending troops to military conflict.

The differences between the Opposition motion and the Government amendment seem to be of the order of angels dancing on pin heads. Whichever of them is accepted, we shall have reached agreement on an important point of principle—things need to change—although we shall still need discussion and consultation about the detail of how the changes are to happen and whether it is to be through legislation or convention.

There has been much mention of Iraq, but the war in Iraq was not the stimulus for my private Member's Bill, or for the inquiry carried out by the Public Administration Committee, which looked much more broadly at the use of the royal prerogative. The question we are debating was just a part of that. There were three votes on Iraq and I never had any doubt that each of them was about legitimising a forthcoming war. I cannot understand how people in the House at the time could see any of those three votes as anything else.

The first debate was in November 2002, some months before the war, and some Labour Members were not really sure whether they should vote. During the debate, I told them that it might be their only chance to vote before the war and that they should not assume that there would be another chance, although in fact there were subsequent votes. But a precedent was set. The Prime Minister said shortly afterwards that he thought that it was inconceivable now that any Government could try to go to war without a vote—but the fact that the Prime Minister said that is no guarantee for the future. We have to look at the mechanisms involved.