Isabel Hardman Isabel Hardman

Did parliament’s Afghanistan debate matter?

© UK Parliament / Roger Harris

Today’s Commons debate on Afghanistan was unusually and surprisingly good. It had the benefit of speeches from many MPs who had themselves served tours of duty in the country, or were veterans of military action elsewhere. It had the advantage of a former Prime Minister speaking with all the authority of someone who knows just how difficult these matters are, rather than the criticisms of backbenchers who had only run their own constituency office. It was a full day’s session operating under usual rules, rather than the hybrid parliament of the past year and a half. This meant that MPs could intervene on speeches, amid the normal hubbub of the Chamber.

So what did we learn from the government in today’s session? Very little

This was not, however, the design of the Conservative whips, who had originally set up a session lasting from 9.30am – 2.30pm. At one point, the debate was actually going to be a statement, which would have meant there was only around three hours for backbench contributions. This was odd, given MPs were travelling to the Commons specially for this session, and many were angered and suspicious that the government was trying to limit the amount of criticism that ministers were going to take.

Tory MP David Davis tabled an amendment extending the sitting to 5pm, which had the support of opposition backbenchers. The government would have won the vote had it gone to a division, but it would have been deeply embarrassing and would have suggested that ministers were trying to avoid scrutiny. So at the start of the session, Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg accepted the amendment and the session ran until 5pm. As it was, around 80 MPs were unable to get in to speak, with the speakers continually imposing shorter and shorter speech limits to try to give as many the opportunity to say something.

It was very clear from the day’s debate that MPs of all parties are very upset about the way the government has handled the situation in Afghanistan.

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