The House of Commons witnessed a small piece of history last week when Nick Clegg stood at the despatch box in the chamber and answered questions at Prime Minister’s Question Time. David Cameron was in the United States so Nick was standing in for the half hour in the weekly bear pit that is PMQ.
How did he do? Well, I may be a less than impartial observer but I thought he did pretty well. His answers were pretty crisp and to the point. On the other side of the table he was facing Jack Straw – a seasoned Commons performer but someone whose style is better suited to a long and perhaps legalistic debate rather than the cut and thrust of question time.
Curiously the one point that journalists and opposition MPs picked up on was his reference to the war in Iraq as being “illegal”. Pressed later the Downing Street press office explained that this was a personal opinion. Does it matter whether it is a personal opinion or not? In my personal opinion it does not. More than that, in my personal opinion he was right!
The war in Iraq was like no other that this country has ever fought. There was no territorial incursion as there had been in the first Gulf War when Kuwait had been invaded. To be legal, therefore, Tony Blair and his cabinet had to demonstrate that there was some real and imminent danger caused to us or some ally by the former Iraqi regime. International law is clear that invading another country just to change its government is not legal. In the United States the government of George Bush never pretended that the war was about anything other than removing Sadam from power. Their concern about the niceties of international law was less than obvious.
It tells you something about the atmosphere in the House of Commons at the present time that Labour MPs started touring the radio and television studios to express their somewhat synthetic astonishment at this “gaff”. If I were a Labour MP then I would think the less I did to draw attention to the legality of the Iraq war the better it would be. Had they been prepared to talk about the legality before the war then it might have been academic now.
The House of Commons has now risen for the summer recess. We shall not, however, be away from Westminster for the next three months as has been the case in years gone by. We shall instead be away for the month of August only and back at the beginning of September for two weeks and then off again for the three weeks of the party conference season. It has not been universally well received among MPs but in opposition I always believed it was bad for parliament for it not to sit for the best part of three months. It was far too long for the business of government to go without scrutiny so we changed it in government. Not as dramatic as a Liberal Democrat answering questions at PMQ but a small piece of parliamentary history nevertheless.
Alistair Carmichael MP