Saturday, July 08, 2006

A Tory For Saddam?

Twice a year, the British Prime Minister comes before the Liaison Committee, consisting of the heads of all of the parliamentary committees, to discuss his administration's policies. It's a much more candid and (relatively) unscripted exchange compared to Prime Minister's Questions, and it covers a number of issues at a much more sophisticated level than does Prime Minister's Questions, where members vie for the opportunity to ask the Prime Minister what he plans to do about the random fellow in that member's constituency who stubbed his toe walking down the sidewalk because a crack had formed in the pavement and it had become uneven.

Tony Blair went before the Liaison Committee on Tuesday, and I caught C-SPAN's coverage of it tonight. It was really very fascinating, covering a range of issues from Northern Ireland, to immigration issues, to Iraq and Afghanistan to the US-British relationship. If C-SPAN has coverage of it on its website, I would recommend watching it. Tony Blair looked incredibly composed, leaning back in his chair, he might as well have had his feet up on the table. The committee members, however, were breaking into sweats, shuffling papers and fidgeting.

In any case, one exchange caught me by surprise. Blair had responded to earlier questions by telling stories of his trips to Iraq and his conversations with British soldiers and Iraqi government officials. Edward Leigh, the conservative member from Gainesborough, and chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, asked a question that was intended to point out the security problems in Iraq. I don't have a transcript, but this BBC report sums up the exchange rather well.
Tory Edward Leigh challenged Mr Blair over the number of Iraqis who had died since the invasion and asked whether life really was better than pre-war.

[...]However, Mr Leigh, chairman of the influential Commons public accounts committee, said thousands of Iraqis had died since the conflict, and while he had been able to walk around Baghdad safely in Saddam's time, no-one could do the same now.
There was only one response to make to this astounding remark, and Blair nailed it - one of the very few emotional outbursts he let loose.
Mr Blair said that was because Mr Leigh was a Westerner and not an Iraqi who disagreed with the former dictator. If he had been an Iraqi who disagreed with Saddam Hussein he would have ended up in a mass grave, said Mr Blair.

On the Iraqi deaths, the prime minister snapped angrily: "They are not dead as a result of this invasion or the removal of Saddam.

"They are dead as a result of the actions of a criminal minority. Our job is to stand with the Iraqis against the terrorists."

Mr Blair said the politicians he talked to in Iraq had been elected by Iraqis, and said if people had wanted to they could have voted for the "Saddam party".

Leigh continued to protest for a while that Iraqis were better off under Saddam becausue HE had been able to walk around safely. With regards to Blair's stories about his visits to Iraq, Leigh asked him when he last spoke to an "ordinary Iraqi." Blair admitted that this wasn't possible for him on his visits, but Leigh had no place to take satisfaction in this answer. Blair rightly said that he had talked numerous times with the elected Iraqi government officials, picked by the "ordinary Iraqis." By his own admission, Leigh's only trip had been during Saddam's regime. I'd be interested in learning who invited him to visit Iraq, and what the purpose of his trip was. A number of the other Conservatives on the committee made a point of reminding Blair that they had supported his decision to go into Iraq, and still do, while still asking tough questions about government policy. That was a great relief to me, because I sure hope Leigh does not represent the current state of the Tory party.


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