No 10 distances itself from Defence Secretary’s ‘illegal wars’ remark

Downing Street has distanced itself from the Defence Secretary’s comments that suggested the UK’s military interventions under the last Labour government amounted to “illegal wars”.

Ben Wallace, in a heated debate in the Commons over a controversial Bill, claimed “illegal wars” instigated by Labour contributed to a legal “mess” faced by British troops.

But Number 10 said the Cabinet minister had been expressing a “personal view” when he spoke at the despatch box on Wednesday.

Afghanistan and Iraq were the major military campaigns in which then prime minister Tony Blair sent British troops into combat.

The latter proved particularly controversial, especially in relation to the level of threat posed by Iraq’s weapons programme.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told reporters: “There have been long-held views on this issue across the political spectrum and the Defence Secretary was giving his own personal view.

“Neither the Government nor the Chilcot inquiry expressed a view on whether or not the UK’s participation in the war was legal.”

Mr Wallace made the remark during an exchange with shadow defence secretary John Healey, who warned that the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill fails to protect troops from prosecution on historical matters.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair

Mr Healey accused the Government of bringing in a “legal presumption against prosecution for torture, war crimes, for crimes against humanity”.

But the Defence Secretary hit back: “Much of the mess we are having to come and clean up today is because of your illegal wars, your events in the past… and to put up straw men and make wild allegations that are wholly inaccurate and disputed by much more learned people than him, I think it a disservice to our troops and is all about making an excuse for not supporting this Bill.”

The Government said the proposed legislation will ensure service personnel will be protected from “vexatious claims and endless investigations”.

Ministers said it seeks to limit false and historical allegations arising from overseas operations by introducing a statutory presumption against prosecution, making it exceptional for personnel to be prosecuted five years or more after an incident.

But campaigners and some senior military figures have warned the legislation will create a presumption against prosecution of torture and other serious crimes except rape and sexual violence.

The row over the proposed law also caused splits in the Labour Party, with leader Sir Keir Starmer sacking three MPs from frontbench roles after they defied whips’ orders to abstain.

Thank you all for your messages of support. My statement below:

— Nadia Whittome MP (@NadiaWhittomeMP) September 24, 2020

Nadia Whittome confirmed she had been stripped of her junior role after voting against the Bill.

Beth Winter and Olivia Blake, who like Ms Whittome were aides to shadow ministers, have also been removed from their positions, party sources confirmed.

Ms Whittome tweeted on Thursday: “This morning the leader of the Opposition’s office called me to confirm that I have been stood down from my role as parliamentary private secretary to the shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, following my vote against the Overseas Operation Bill.

“I opposed the Bill because it effectively decriminalises torture and makes it harder for veterans to take legal action against the Government or for war crimes to be investigated.”

The Nottingham East MP, who at 24 is the youngest member of the Commons, said that while she understood others in her party hoped amendments could be made at a later stage and so abstained, it was “important that MPs are able to vote in line with their conscience”.

A Labour source had told the PA news agency that “anyone who wanted to vote against (the) whip” had been informed they “would have to resign”.

Sir Keir’s predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, along with former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott and ex-shadow chancellor John McDonnell, were among the Labour rebels.