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Whatever Happened to ... Impeaching Blair?
Published on Saturday, January 21, 2006 by the Guardian/UK
Whatever Happened to ... Impeaching Blair?
by Iain Hollingshead
 

Most people look forward to the summer, but pity poor newspaper editors (or their deputies) who struggle to fill space when MPs and readers decamp en masse to sunnier climes. Last year's "silly season" treated those left behind to full-scale investigations into killer British mosquitoes, John Prescott's hairline, Piano Man's identity and the whereabouts of Tony Blair. One Sun front page reported "Scientists' amazing discovery": Victor Meldrew's face could be drawn by playing join-the-dots with the stars.

So when, in August 2004, the Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price proposed impeaching the prime minister over the Iraq war, critics thought he'd spent too much time in the summer sun. Wags drew comparisons with Bill Clinton and blue dresses. Academics were wheeled out to chart the British history of impeachment - from Richard Lyons, for corruption in 1376, to an unsuccessful attempt against Lord Palmerston in 1848, for signing a secret treaty with Russia. The Labour MP Keith Vaz told Newsnight: "This is a silly story for the end of the silly season."

As Mr Price himself admitted in a foreword to the report he commissioned: "To dust off Victorian constitutional histories and examine precedents from the time of Charles I and Chaucer may seem bizarre." Allegations brought against Mr Blair included misleading parliament and the country, negligence and incompetence, undermining the constitution and making a secret agreement with the president of the United States.

To the surprise of some, the campaign quickly gathered momentum. The following month, Mr Price solicited the legal opinion of Professor Conor Gearty and Rabinder Singh QC - both senior members of Matrix chambers, where Cherie Booth also practises. They were broadly sympathetic to the case for impeachment.

On November 24 2004 an Order Paper for an impeachment motion - the first in almost 200 years - was put before parliament. Its signatories ranged from the former Tory minister Douglas Hogg to the Liberal Democrat MP Jenny Tonge. George Galloway also signed the motion but spent the historic day prosecuting a libel action against the Daily Telegraph, whose columnist Boris Johnson was a fellow signatory.

This extraordinary mixture of bedfellows extended to the campaign's public supporters, which included the leftwing actor Corin Redgrave, the die-hard Conservative Frederick Forsyth, the playwright Harold Pinter, the musician Brian Eno and Monty Python's Terry Jones.

In 2005, the campaign rather lost its momentum. But then in November, a motion was published calling for a full parliamentary inquiry into the UK's role in the Iraq war. To date it has been signed by 114 MPs from all the main parties. Supporters hope for a debate at some point in the spring.

Additional momentum came recently from the former UN commander in Bosnia General Sir Michael Rose. "The impeachment of Mr Blair is now something I believe must happen if we are to rekindle interest in the democratic process in this country once again," he wrote in the Guardian this month.

In some ways, however, the debate has moved on. "Impeachment was the lightning rod that got people talking," says Mr Price, who has received several awards for his campaigning. "But what we're doing now is marshalling those forces in a different way."

There have already been four inquiries into events surrounding the Iraq war, including the Hutton inquiry into Dr Kelly's death and the Butler report on the reliability of intelligence. In contrast, the significance to supporters of a select committee of privy councillors - as proposed by the current motion - is that it would represent a victory for parliamentary primacy over an unfettered executive.

"We will have achieved many of our objectives if a committee is formed," says Mr Price, "whether or not it ends up recommending impeachment."

Email: iain@iainhollingshead.co.uk.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

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