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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman should make his intentions clear. He sat down, and I would have been entitled to conclude that, after 20-odd minutes, he had finished his speech. Mr. Hancock.
Mr. Smith: I have not explained it because that is not what the report says. If we read the report, we see that it says that the military operation was a success, the support for our troops, especially in relation to chemical and biological weapons, was good, and the logistical operation was an outstanding success overall. That is what the report actually says. I am sure that time will be taken up by hon. Members tryingas the hon. Gentleman is already tryingto cast aspersions on the role of our forces and on the way in which they conducted themselves on the battlefield
Mr. Smith: Oh yes. And nothing could be further from the truth.Our forces had to move their massive operation from the north of the country to the south of the country, they won the battle within four weeks when some were predicting that it could take months, and they were up against a formidable enemy.
I have heard it said since the operation was completed that the Iraqi army was not a threat and that its military command was in disarray. That is simply not true. It was preparing for military assault and had probably based its preparation on observing Kosovo, as it clearly expected a long-drawn-out air bombardment followed by a land attack. Nothing could have been further from the truth. We moved in with such speed, agility and flexibility that we were able to win the war relatively quickly. We could not have done that had we not undertaken a strategic defence review and reconfigured our forces to make them agile, flexible and rapid, enabling us to put forward an expeditionary force of that nature in such a hostile environment. That is why I congratulate the Government on their leadership through this difficult period.
Mr. Michael Portillo (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): I have an interest to declare because I am a director of BAE Systems plc. Most of my speech, however, will be about boots, clothing and spares for land vehicles, which are not products for which BAE is particularly noted.
I must say to the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) that among a number of rather foolish things that he said, particularly towards the end of his remarks, he suggested that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) had raised this matter for party political reasons. My hon. Friend's reputation goes before him. His reputation as the Minister for the Armed Forces under the previous Government
Without wearying the House too much, I hope, I want to echo the congratulations to the Secretary of State on the distinguished public service order medal that he has received. I repeat that simply because I am a former holder of his office, and I therefore know that that award is not given lightly by the United States Government. In addition, it is the highest award for which he was eligible, and he has every reason to be extremely proud of it.
This is a most interesting report, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex balanced the weight that he gave to its positive comments about the deployment with the criticisms raised. I want to reflect that balance in my remarks if possible. It is perfectly true that 36,000 personnel were deployed. Interestingly, the report reminds us what the objectives of the exercise were and how quickly they were achieved. The first objective was the removal of Saddam's regime, which was accomplished within four weeks, and the second was to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. A number of Labour Members of Parliament might reflect ruefully on how that second challenge turned out to be slightly less steep and difficult than the Government had presented to the House. It was four weeks to victory, however, which was indeed an extraordinary accomplishment.
The report also reminds us of the particular areas in which praise was due to our armed forces: the successfully accomplished activities of the Amphibious Task Group; the seizure of the city of Basra, which was accomplished with terrific distinction and valour; and the 2,500-plus sorties flown by the Royal Air Force with great distinction, which made a substantial contribution to the air war.
A number of references have been made during this debate to the glorious period of Conservative Government some time back now. During our period in office, I do not remember a time when we were able to take much satisfaction over the performance of the Challenger tank, or indeed, any tank. I therefore read with enormous pleasure that the Challenger tank had performed well in Iraq. That was a logistical success because substantial adjustments were required. A dust mitigation plan had to be put into effect following the exercise in Oman in 2001. Appliqué armour was added to the tank, and the report records that the appliqué armour withstood all the assaults that were made on the tank by Iraqi forces. That is extremely good news, and all the more welcome because of the long history of problems with that piece of equipment.
The other thing that I thought worth pointing out on the success side was the achievement of the Defence Transport and Movements Agency. The report records that it went out and secured 50,000 metres linear, as is the expression, of shipping capacity, which enabled the entire force to be lifted in a single movement, which is a terrific success.
I want to endorse one point made by the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan, which is that the report reminds us that this was not the long war that many Members of the House had predicted. We did not fight hand to hand for weeks on end in Baghdad, as many had predicted. There were not an atrocious number of civilian casualties, as many had also predicted. Although the theme of this debate is accountability, I want to point out that those right hon. and hon. Members who make those gloomy predictions, and, by the way, who do so with fantastic monotonyin one campaign after another, we have to put up with what these doomsters predict for usare never held to account. They never come back to the House to be asked why it is that once again they have got things wrong, and have contributed to lowering national morale at a time when we were about to deploy our forces.
Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): Would not my right hon. Friend agree, however, that many in the House were misled by the Government, who said that there were weapons of mass destruction, which has signally not been demonstrated? Members of the House are entitled to make the kind of predictions to which he has referred given the misinformation by the Government?
Mr. Portillo: I have already alluded, in perhaps a slightly flippant way, to the shortcomings of the information given to us by the Government in that respect, and I shall refer to that again later. Leaving aside for a moment the question of weapons of mass destruction, many of the other predictions made by right hon. and hon. Members were woefully askew of the truth and even of what was likely. We never see those people coming back to the House to talk about why they got things so wrong, however.
I did not get the impression from the Secretary of State today that his attitude was what one would expect from a man who was willing to learn the lessons. In line with what the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan said, those in the armed forces will of course understand that things go wrong. What they will expect from him, however, is an attitude of mind that means that he wants to absorb those lessons and make things better for the future. In that respect, if I may say so, the Secretary of State's demeanour this afternoon was unfortunate. To make a general comment, it is not his performance that generally gets him into difficulty but his demeanour.