IN this space yesterday I reflected on the difficulty facing any Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons who puts a question to the Prime Minister that can be interpreted as criticising policies which British troops are fighting to implement. The first question Michael Howard put to Tony Blair yesterday about Iraq did not quite fall into that category but the Prime Minister immediately tried to suggest that it did and that Mr Howard was reneging on the full support which his party had given to the invasion of Iraq. It was a low blow which Mr Howard countered effectively but its significance was that it showed how sensitive the Prime Minister is to criticism on Iraq. The implication of his answer was, that for as long as British servicemen and women remain in Iraq, no criticism should be made of the way the aftermath of the war is being handled. That is clearly nonsense, especially in the case of a military commitment that is thought to be wrong by a substantial part of the public.

The Conservative MP Sir Peter Tapsell is something of a figure of fun in the House of Commons, at least for Labour backbenchers; when he rises he is greeted with ironic cheers. Yet it was left to Sir Peter yesterday to ask a question no one else has dared or chosen to put: “Does the Prime Minister support the murder and mutilation of hundreds of women and children in Falluja as an appropriate response to the savage murder of four American security contractors?” Sir Peter did not get a real answer, of course, but his question touched a raw nerve at a time that “shock and awe” is once more a US military tactic in Iraq.


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