Armed Conflict (Parliamentary Approval)

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 8:05 pm on 15th May 2007.

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Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire 8:05 pm, 15th May 2007

My hon. Friend Mr. Atkinson always speaks an enormous amount of good sense on matters such as this. I suspect from his remarks that—rather like me, and very much like my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind—he has real reservations about the implications of what we are debating.

Having said that, I find myself in an unenviable position in comparison with many of those who have spoken this evening. There has been a cosy agreement across the Chamber: more or less everyone who has spoken has broadly agreed with everyone else. Those who have advocated the abolition of the royal prerogative for many years—Dr. Wright, the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, who is present, has done so for many years, as has my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague, who opened the debate with such passion—must be very satisfied by what has been happening in the Chamber today. They have witnessed a huge sea change in opinion in both parties: they have seen views, which as recently as a year or two ago were deeply unpopular with both the Government and the Conservative party, suddenly becoming the flavour of the month.

Indeed, we have heard that only 10 days ago no less a figure than the Lord Chancellor, the second most senior person in the nation, took the view that the abolition of the royal prerogative was a dreadful thing and poured cold water on it. All of a sudden, we read in no less a source than The Observer that the Chancellor of the Exchequer disagrees with his noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, and wants to do away with the royal prerogative and have war-making powers decided in this place.

I find myself in a difficult position. Those who favour abolition of the royal prerogative are very satisfied because the world has gone their way, but I have fought and spoken against abolition as it is proposed today for a long time. In a thesis that I wrote when I was a student at the Royal College of Defence Studies in 2003, at the time of the Iraq war, I went to great lengths to express my view that the royal prerogative was useful—I shall explain why in a moment—and that its abolition in favour of a parliamentary decision to go to war would be altogether retrograde. I advanced the same arguments during a debate about a year ago on the Armed Forces (Parliamentary Approval for Participation in Armed Conflict) Bill, promoted by Clare Short, and that has remained my view.

As recently as this morning, I contacted the Conservative Whips to tell them that I very much regretted that I would be speaking and voting against the Conservative motion. Rather curiously, had that been the case, I should have found myself speaking and voting also against the Labour amendment. I might have ended up in a minority of one—not a position that would give me any great discomfort, but it would have been difficult.

The difficulty that I have encountered is that, having listened carefully to superb speeches by, for instance, my right hon. and learned Friends the Members for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and for Kensington and Chelsea and my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks, I have increasingly been led by the two central arguments they have advanced to review my dyed-in-the-wool opposition to a parliamentary decision on going to war. The first of those arguments is that the powers of Parliament have been systematically reduced and sidelined by this Government, and that a convention that was introduced to control the over-mighty monarchs of the middle ages has swung so far to the other extreme that we now have an over-mighty Executive.

It has been said that Parliament has been sidelined to a significant degree in a variety of areas, of which that of war-making powers is, perhaps, the most significant. That is the case. I accept that the Chancellor says that he is determined to reinvent the powers of Parliament, but there is a powerful series of arguments about what has happened to the powers of Parliament to decide on a variety of matters and how Parliament has progressively become sidelined in recent years. I am also persuaded by the populist argument that of all the things that we do in this place—and of all the things that the nation does—going to war and committing our boys and girls to risking their lives is the most significant, and that it is increasingly an anomaly that this great House of Commons, which is the mother of Parliaments, has no say over whether that should occur.

Those two central arguments have been expressed by a variety of contributors to the debate. They are powerful arguments, and despite my previous opposition to abolishing the royal prerogative in this area, they are beginning to persuade me not to do what I warned my Whips I would do: vote against the motion.

I am also helped in changing my mind by our discussions on the means by which this step would be taken. I had previously imagined the new measure to be very like the Bill promoted by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood, in that it would require a decision on any form of military deployment whatever to come before the House. That would be bad for a variety of reasons which I shall explain shortly. However, in all our discussions this evening—whether they have been on some statutory obligation to discuss war-making in Parliament or on the parliamentary convention approach proposed by the House of Lords Constitution Committee—we have been talking about a gradual approach, so that there would be flexibility in the use of parliamentary authority for war-making powers rather than a dictatorial or small-minded approach.

That is a very important change. In all previous debates on this matter it had been suggested that there would be an absolute requirement that any deployment of troops anywhere in the world would require parliamentary authority. Presumably that would also apply to a significant increase in the number of troops—as has happened in Afghanistan—and to a change in the legitimisation or justification for a war resulting in our wanting to consider bringing troops home from that theatre. I would be wholly opposed to that, as it would hamper our generals and our nation, and it would prevent us from punching above our weight in the world. However, given that we have received assurances from both the Government and Opposition Benches that that would not be the case and that instead there would be a convention or a carefully worded statute that allowed some degree of latitude to the Government and the armed services, I begin to be more persuaded.

There are, however, several caveats which we ought to think about extremely carefully. The first is to do with intelligence. There has been considerable debate about the use of intelligence. It is worrying that in the run-up to the vote on the Iraq war significant use of intelligence was made. The Government produced the two dossiers. They were said to be highly secret and intelligent and very important. We now know that much of what was written in them was complete and utter nonsense. Lots of the spin in the newspapers at the time—which came, I understand, not from the Foreign Office or the Ministry of Defence, but from No. 10 Downing street—proved to be completely inaccurate.

Let us contemplate for a moment why the Government had to go to such lengths to spin the intelligence in the run-up to Iraq. It was not so that they could take part in the war. They had to spin and pervert the intelligence in that way because they knew that they had to win a vote in this House. In other words, the very fact that there was to be a vote meant that the intelligence was not straightforward and easy to understand; it was converted into a justification for the war. That is unhealthy. Some of the suggestions made this evening about possibly using the Intelligence and Security Committee to consider the intelligence, or of employing other means to examine it before committing to war such as by means of a committee of Privy Councillors, offer a way out of that difficulty.

However, it should be said that the intelligence that we act on when we go to war is, of course, secret and in most cases if it were revealed to this place or the public we would compromise our intelligence sources, which would be a retrograde step. There must be a way of considering the intelligence, and we must avoid the spinning of it.