WILL Michael Howard raise the matter of the Ambassadors' letter on Iraq and Israel at Prime Minister's Questions today? He may not. The letter may pose greater difficulties for the Leader of the Opposition than for Mr Blair. It expresses in the clearest possible terms the criticisms of government policy that have been widely advanced in the media and elsewhere but have hardly been heard in Parliament - except, to a limited extent, from Charles Kennedy. When British forces are engaged overseas in military action it is difficult for any politician to criticise the policies they are fighting to defend or implement; Iain Duncan Smith took this line and Michael Howard adhered to it without amendment when he assumed the leadership of the Conservatives. In doing so he effectively declared Iraq to be a no-go area for criticism of the Government. However, the issues raised in the Ambassadors' letter to Mr Blair are of such moment and come with such authority that they could provide Mr Howard with an opportunity to break loose from the constraints he has until now accepted and instead articulate the serious concerns about the Government's Middle East policies held by large sections of the public.

Although the letter signed by 52 “former ambassadors, high commissioners, governors and senior international officials” deals with the deteriorating situation in Iraq and the problems likely to be caused by US and UK endorsement of Israel's Gaza Strip proposals, its main burden concerns the Prime Minister's failure to exert sufficient pressure on the American administration or to recognise the consequences if such pressure is not welcome and ignored. The letter's final paragraph makes this clear: “We share your view that the British government has an interest in working as closely as possible with the US on both these related issues (Iraq and Israel/Palestine), and in exerting real influence as a loyal ally. We believe that the need for such influence is now a matter of the highest urgency. If that is unacceptable or unwelcome there is no case for supporting policies which are doomed to failure.” That is a text which Mr Howard could very well adopt for a new policy of criticism of the Government on these sensitive issues without being accused of selling British forces short. Will he take the opportunity? Probably not. His initial reaction to the Ambassadors' letter yesterday was that “It raises very serious questions that deserve serious answers from the government”. Fair enough, but will he be the one to ensure that Mr Blair gives those serious answers or will it be left to Charles Kennedy or individual MPs Tam Dalyell, perhaps - to try to elicit them?

EFFORTS were made yesterday to downplay the importance of the Ambassadors' letter. The derogatory Foreign Office term - “the camels” - was dusted off to describe diplomats who have spent too many years in the Middle East and been seduced by the Arab cause. Such a characterisation cannot apply to Sir Bryan Cartledge, former ambassador to Moscow, or to Marrack Goulding who served the UN for seven years as head of its peacekeeping operations, or to Sir Crispin Tickell, who was Britain's senior representative at the UN when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1989, or to Francis Cornish who was ambassador to Israel from 1998 to 2001. These distinguished diplomats would not have signed this open letter to the Prime Minister without careful thought. So why did they decide to do so? Yesterday Sir Crispin Tickell explained: “It was because of our profound concern about what is taking place in both Iraq and Israel and Palestine. I have never seen such a level of worry and despair among those who have been involved in the diplomatic field ever before.”


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