Young and impeccably Blairite, the MP chatting with his chums last week in Brighton had a warning. "Iraq mustn't become our Europe," he said. He meant that the war must not split Labour the way the European question had sundered the Tories. But there was another meaning, too.
For Europe is an obsession for a certain kind of Tory. During conference season, you could pick them out at fringe meetings before they had said a word. Armed with leaflets in plastic carrier bags and wearing egg-stained ties, they would make speeches rather than ask questions - rapidly turning any room into a collective groan. Never mind the content of their remarks, even fellow Conservatives saw them as saddos in extra-thick anoraks.
This is the risk for those on the liberal left who continue to bang on about the war. Soon we could be cast as obsessives, losers who just can't let go. "Move on," is the Blairite message. "Let's agree to disagree on the past and focus on the future." Refuse and you might as well soak your tie in egg yolk now.
That gentle form of social coercion seems to be having an effect. This week the Iraq Survey Group published its final report, coming to a conclusion that would once have been unimaginable: when it was invaded last year, Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Not one.
Cast your mind back to, say, January 2003 and imagine someone had told you this would be the outcome. You'd have assumed that London and Washington would now be on fire, as furious crowds filled the streets demanding the heads of leaders who had led them to war on such a manifestly false basis. Surely the garrison towns would be in revolt, as soldiers' wives and mothers, husbands and sons, bellowed their rage at the men who took their loved ones to fight a war against a danger that did not exist.
That has not been the reaction. The ISG report has been received with a weary sigh: yeah, yeah, we knew that. To express shock and anger, to demand a reckoning, is to sound like a broken record.
Of course, that's not the only reason the report has provoked yawns rather than howls. For one thing, its conclusion is hardly a surprise. We've known for 18 months that Iraq's WMD cupboard was bare. Some would say we knew on April 9 2003, when that Saddam statue was toppled: if he had had WMD, wouldn't he have used them to prevent his own fall?
Our leaders have used the intervening time to let us down gently, preparing us for the eventual news that the Baghdad tiger had no teeth. At first, George Bush and Tony Blair insisted Saddam had WMD, ready and aimed at us. Then, when those failed to show up, they shifted ground so that, in July 2003, Blair declared: "I have absolutely no doubt at all that we will find evidence of WMD programmes." Not weapons, but programmes. When those proved elusive, it was suddenly "WMD programme-related activities".
In this way, the eventual, meagre conclusion of the Iraq Survey Group - that Saddam merely hoped to reconstitute his WMD capability - did not come as such a shock. Our expectations had been managed downward for more than a year.
To complete the process, this week's release of the report was controlled with magisterial spin. Rather than focus on the big picture - there were no WMD - much of the briefing has diverted media attention on to claims that Saddam intended to buy the favour of nations such as France, Russia and China, and individuals, including the expelled Labour MP George Galloway. That way the report can be used to discredit opponents of the war, rather than those who pushed for it.
It's hardly a surprise that the ISG document includes these crumbs of comfort for London and Washington. After all, the Iraq Survey Group is not some independent or UN-affiliated body. It was, in fact, set up by the Bush administration, in preference to having Hans Blix and his team return to Iraq to finish their inspections. It operated as an arm of the CIA; its head, Charles Duelfer, first came to prominence as an appointee of President Bush's father.
We need to strive hard to see through this cloud of smoke and remind ourselves of some basic facts about a war that has taken thousands of lives, allied and Iraqi. The warmakers always said Iraq had stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons, and was close to getting its hands on nukes - and now we know that was not true. They said Iraq had refused to comply with UN resolutions demanding disarmament - that, indeed, was the legal basis of the war - and now we know that Iraq had complied in the only sense that mattered, having "essentially destroyed" its illicit weapons ability by the end of 1991, according to the report.
In September 2002, Tony Blair told parliament: "I am in no doubt that the threat is serious and current" - but now we know that the "threat" was nothing of the sort, that it amounted to little more than a fond hope in the heart of Saddam Hussein.
Jack Straw says the ISG report convinces him that Saddam posed an "even greater threat" than previously understood. This is surreal logic. Would the country have been persuaded to go to war merely to stop an intention of Saddam's, one several years from even the possibility of realisation? Would parliament have voted for it? The intention of a perceived enemy does not count as grounds for war - not under international law, not under even the loosest notion of moral philosophy.
The UN charter allows for self-defence from an actual attack, not an intention. Even the advocates of pre-emptive war, a concept not permitted by the UN, agree there first has to be clear evidence of a threat, defined as intention plus capability. Mere intention is not enough. In other words, the ISG report does not provide sufficient evidence to meet even the most hawkish neocon's definition of legitimate war. On the contrary, it proves what the sceptics said all along: that containment worked and Saddam had been tamed. War was unnecessary.
Why does any of this matter? Euro obsessives always say Britain's future is at stake. Well, in this debate, it's the world's. If this war is allowed to pass with impunity, these will be the consequences. First, "pre-emptive" wars will be deemed acceptable, even against countries that palpably pose no threat. Second, international law will become a dead letter, to be broken by powerful states at will.
And third, in Britain, a precedent will be established. From now on, a prime minister will be able to mislead parliament and public on the gravest matter - and pay no price. He will be able to say something is "beyond doubt" when underlying intelligence for his assertion is packed with doubt - and get away with it. This is where we are now and why some of us will keep banging on about it - egg-stained tie or no.
© The Guardian Ltd.