Simon Nixon

Why the Tories backed the war

Simon Nixon on a first-class mystery: what made the Conservatives save Blair's premiership and support an unpopular war?

Text settings

Tories are used to getting blamed for many things, but to be blamed for a Labour Cabinet minister's lack of principles is surely a first. That was their fate at the hands of Clare Short. For weeks, people have struggled to understand the former International Development Secretary's failure to resign after calling the Prime Minister's policy on Iraq 'reckless'. Now we know that her hypocrisy was all the fault of the Tories. 'Because the official opposition was voting with the government, a conflict was unavoidable,' Short told Parliament. 'I decided I should not weaken the government at that time.'

One of the most nauseating images of the postwar spin operation is that of a beleaguered prime minister gathering his family around him on the eve of war to warn them that he could be about to lose his job. Now Short has confirmed what few reporters bothered to mention: thanks to the Tories, Blair was never in the slightest danger of losing his job. The hagiographies tell of a prime minister heroically taking on the overwhelming opposition of his party and the country to send the armed forces into war. But what of Iain Duncan Smith, who also took on his own party and the country in order to keep Blair in office? The Tories were just as divided over the war as Labour was. Most Conservative MPs freely admit that the mood in their constituencies, even among party members, was largely one of opposition. How did IDS do it?

Indeed, his achievement was even more remarkable when you consider that here was a leader of the opposition whose position was said to be perilously weak, yet who adopted a policy on Iraq markedly at odds with the views of most of the diplomatic and military establishments, large swaths of the Conservative press (the Daily Mail remained sceptical right up until the fighting started), and a formidable array of party grandees, including two former foreign secretaries, Lord Hurd and Sir Malcolm Rifkind. Moreover, here was a leader of the opposition who continued to support the government even as more than a million people marched through the streets of London in the biggest demonstration of popular opposition to any government in British history.

What is even more remarkable is that the party appears to have adopted this position with virtually no debate. As the crisis unfolded, there were many Tories, ranging from Eurosceptics such as Sir Peter Tapsell to pro-Europeans such as John Gummer, who disagreed with party policy on Iraq. Many members, perhaps up to half the parliamentary party, would have preferred a more nuanced position, one that reflected the questions that the rest of the country was asking. Yet intriguingly, little attempt was made to change party policy. Moreover, when it came to the crucial votes in Parliament on 23 February and 18 March, just 15 Conservative MPs voted against war – far fewer than many expected. One anti-war MP reckons that if there had been a free vote earlier in the crisis, at least a third of Tory MPs might have voted against war. Even in February, most MPs expected 20 or more Tories to vote against war.

Why, then, did traditional Tory scepticism fail to make an impact at Westminster? The main reason was that any change in party policy was impossible under the current leadership. As shadow defence secretary in the late 1990s, IDS had developed close contacts with neoconservative think-tanks in the US, whose blueprint for a new American security policy has since been adopted by the Bush administration. Their chief concern was the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the need to take pre-emptive action to ensure that they did not fall into the hands of rogue states and terrorist organisations. IDS shared these concerns. He made his first speech warning of the dangers of WMDs in 1995, and subsequently wrote about the risks in a pamphlet published in 2000 that was reissued in 2002. Indeed, IDS had been talking about the need to tackle Iraq long before 11 September.

Given his track record on the issue, IDS could hardly do anything other than take a hawkish line on Iraq. Nor was there much attempt by his colleagues in the shadow Cabinet to persuade him to tone down his rhetoric. According to one shadow Cabinet member, Iraq was regularly discussed but at no stage did anyone express strong reservations over the policy. Outside the shadow Cabinet, a number of junior frontbench spokesmen did express reservations – indeed, four were to quit – but the shadow Cabinet itself was comfortable with the policy. Nor was there much resistance offered in the 1922 Committee, dismissed by many MPs as 'virtually defunct'. About 25 MPs, many of whom were critical of party policy, turned up to hear IDS speak at a meeting in September 2002, but there was little consensus over what alternative strategy the party might credibly pursue. Indeed, Tory opponents of the war refused to do what Labour opponents were doing and organise themselves to lobby their colleagues. Nobody wanted to be accused of engineering party splits.

Meanwhile, the leadership went out of its way to win over doubters. Throughout February and March, the shadow Foreign Office team of Michael Ancram and Alan Duncan (who struggled to overcome his own reservations about the party's hardline stance) held a weekly meeting to discuss the policy with backbench MPs. Bernard Jenkin, the shadow defence spokesman and, along with IDS, by far the most hawkish member of the shadow Cabinet, also spoke to waverers. At the same time, the whips mounted a successful operation to bring doubters into line. Those with a long-standing, principled opposition to the war were largely left alone. Party strategists took the view that the way to gain maximum political advantage out of the crisis was to be staunch, not sceptical. Talk of doing what Labour did during the Maastricht debates in 1992, and voting against the government to try to bring about its defeat, was dismissed out of hand. Such cynicism, it was felt, would backfire. Instead, the Tories calculated that by voting with the government, more Labour MPs were likely to rebel.

But the main reason why most Tories ultimately fell into line was that they felt they had no choice but to believe the Prime Minister when he said he had intelligence reports proving Saddam had WMDs. True, not all Tories who voted for war believed Blair: Peter Lilley, the former deputy leader, studied the documents and concluded that Blair was 'probably telling fibs on this one', but satisfied himself that a case could be made to remove Saddam on humanitarian grounds. Similarly, Patrick Mercer, chairman of the Commons defence committee, although privy to intelligence briefings from the Ministry of Defence, came to the same conclusion on WMDs as Robin Cook and President Putin but voted for war because he was convinced of Iraq's links to global terrorism. But the majority of Tory MPs chose to believe Blair.

Now that the war is won, perhaps the issue of WMDs no longer matters. Certainly, the failure so far to find any does not detract in any way from IDS's achievement in uniting his party behind his policy of support for Blair. But there is no doubt that the failure to uncover even so much as a dirty test tube has upset many Tory MPs. Few doubted that Britain and the US would win the war quickly. The concern was always that they would fail to win the peace. The events of the last few weeks have not dispelled those concerns. If it now emerges that the pretext for war was a sham, many MPs will feel very let down. 'Where are all those WMDs?' said one Tory backbencher. 'What was the intelligence Blair received? Can we now see it?'

More crucially, the failure to find any WMDs may have a bearing on the outcome of an important debate now taking place within the Conservative party. The issue is how Britain should respond to the profound shift in US foreign policy since 11 September. The Bush administration has adopted a policy for creating a new world order based on the twin doctrines of pre-emptive action and regime change, including the removal, by force if necessary, of the leaders of states that don't embrace Western values. This view is clearly shared by many of the current Tory leadership. 'The age-old doctrine of containment and deterrence can no longer be relied upon,' Michael Ancram said earlier this year. 'The doctrine of pre-emption – that is to say, economic, political and military – is now unavoidable.'

But this enthusiasm for the new Bush doctrine is not universally shared by Tory MPs. One of its most cogent critics is Andrew Tyrie, who has set out what is at stake in an insightful pamphlet published jointly by the Bow Group and the Foreign Policy Centre. 'The international system's stability depends on the mutual recognition of states' legitimacy. It is a common-sense principle: do not invade my house and I will not invade yours. George Bush is setting that doctrine aside.' It is a recipe, says Tyrie, not for international order but for 'international anarchy'.

This debate is of more than theological interest. It goes to the heart of what it means to be a Conservative. Nor is the issue likely to go away. Many Tories were unhappy with the intervention in Kosovo; many more had deep reservations over Iraq. In the Iraq crisis, most MPs judged the issue on the basis of the facts put before them rather than according to any ideological considerations. But it is clear that many Conservatives are distinctly wary of George Bush and the neoconservative agenda. If the new Bush doctrine of pre-emption and regime change draws Britain into new conflicts, this rift between Conservatives and neoconservatives is sure to widen.