Howard's hollow attack lifts Blair

GIVE the Conservatives a goal guarded only by one man whom the court of public opinion has indicted for manipulating evidence to exaggerate the case for war, and they'll balloon the ball over the crossbar in the same costly way as David Beckham did in Portugal.

GIVE the Conservatives a goal guarded only by one man whom the court of public opinion has indicted for manipulating evidence to exaggerate the case for war, and they'll balloon the ball over the crossbar in the same costly way as David Beckham did in Portugal.

Michael Howard's "attack" on the Prime Minister in the debate on the Butler Report into intelligence failures in the lead up to the Iraq war was woeful and hollow.

Following the Tories' abysmal performance in last week's by-elections, which saw anti-war parties the Liberal Democrats and Respect doing spectacularly well, something akin to panic had overcome Howard and his advisers. They decided to rewrite history - that the Conservatives last year egged on the Prime Minister to send in the troops and blast Saddam Hussein out of Baghdad

Over the weekend, Howard thought up a wheeze and signalled a peculiar shift in his position - that he still supported the war because it was right to overthrow Saddam , but he would not have voted for the resolution which took us into battle - a Commons vote which Blair won only with the support of the Tories - if he had known then that no weapons of mass destruction existed.

He tried this tack in the Commons on Tuesday - and it sounded even more ridiculous. It presented a golden opportunity for the Prime Minister brush off critics of the war and to savage the Tory leader - and unlike Beckham, he had the back of the net bulging.

"It is absurd to suggest that he or the shadow Foreign Secretary were in two minds about Iraq, were not quite sure, sat around scratching their heads wondering whether it was a threat or not and were then persuaded by me that it was," goaded the Prime Minister.

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"It is time that he realised that shabby opportunism is no the solution to his problem: it is his problem. The public will respect people who were honestly for the war and they will respect people who were honestly against the war. They will not respect a politician who says that he is for an against the war in the same newspaper article."

As so often is the case, it was left to Suffolk Coastal's John Gummer to clinically destroy the Prime Minister's arguments. Acknowledging that Saddam's supposed battlefield weapons were horrific, the former Tory Cabinet minister who voted against the war said the invasion has been sold to the British people and parliament on the basis of an "imminent threat" against the UK and its allies.

"When the chairman of Shell used information that he was given about the company's resources and found subsequently that the information was wrong, he had to go - although he had misled no one in any way.

"The Prime Minister failed to give us caveats. He told us that which misled us. That is why he has to go," stormed Mr Gummer.

Labour rebels forced a vote on a technicality at the end of the debate, defeated by a margin of 214 to 41, with 30 Labour backbenchers joining two Tories, two Liberal Democrats and seven nationalists in the anti-war lobby. Those voting for the Government included Chris Mole (Ipswich), Alan Hurst (Braintree) and Ivan Henderson (Harwich).

IT'S not just at Westminster that the Tories have had difficulties - over in Brussels and Strasbourg they've extricated themselves from the federalist Group of the European People's Party (Christian Democrats) and European Democrats.

It is the largest delegation in the European the Parliament, with 270 deputies out of a total of 735. It is not only in favour of a federal Europe and the single currency, but also the European Constitution. Which made it all the more ridiculous that the Tories, who oppose all three planks of the group's policies, should have been members.

Now the Conservatives - led by South-East region Euro MP and arch Eurosceptic Dan Hannan - have engineered a putsch. An autonomous European Democrats group has been formed, comprising the Tories and conservative parties from the Czech Republic, Portugal, and Italy with the possibility that MEPs from Poland and the Baltic states.

It's the beginning of what the Tories hope will be a two-speed EU, making it clear that throughout the 25 states there are millions of voters who have no appetite for an ultimate federal superstate.

At the other political extreme, the East of England's Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Duff has called for the European Parliament to shoulder responsibility for the proposed Constitution.

Mr Duff, who led the European Liberal in the Convention which drafted the Constitution, said: "The Parliament cannot absolve itself of responsibility - if any referendum is lost anywhere in Europe, and not least in the UK, it will be party our fault as MEPs and that of the political parties that sent us here."

Meanwhile, the 11 UK Independence Party MEPs have made their mark in the new European Parliament. Their chairman, Nigel Farage, said none of the UKIP team would be taking part in European Parliament delegation trips round the world, because of their opposition to the spending lifestyle of Euro MPs.

"We will do everything we can to obstruct and delay legislation. That is a firm undertaking, and every time we stop legislation there will be British businessmen cheering from the rooftops," said Mr Farage.

The Vatican has renewed its attack on the decision to make no reference to Christianity or even God in the proposed Constitution. Pope John Paul II - whose Polish homeland is now a fully pledged member of the European Union - bemoaned: "One should not cut the roots from which one was born."

His remarks betrayed the bitterness felt by the Vatican at the failure of the Catholic group of seven - Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Portugal, Malta, Lithuania, and Italy - to force the insertion of a reference to Christianity in the text.


"I fear that, by invading Iraq, we responded in precisely the way that Osama Bin Laden wanted. As a consequence, we and the west will have to live with violent confrontations and the violent consequences of this strategic blunder for a decade to come."

Labour's Robin Cook, who resigned as Leader of the House of Commons over the decision to go to war in Iraq.

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