Blair wins greatest gamble

TONY Blair last night won the biggest gamble of his political life after threatening to quit if MPs backed any move to withdraw British troops from the imminent conflict with Iraq.

By Graham Dines


Political Editor

TONY Blair last night won the biggest gamble of his political life after threatening to quit if MPs backed any move to withdraw British troops from the imminent conflict with Iraq.

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His daring paid off – but 139 Labour MPs defied the Prime Minister to back a motion seeking more time for the peaceful disarmament of Saddam Hussein.

A rebel amendment co-signed by 104 cross-party backbenchers, including John Gummer (Conservative, Suffolk Coastal), Bob Russell (Liberal Democrat, Colchester) and Dr Ian Gibson (Labour, Norwich North), was defeated by 396 to 149, majority 179.

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MPs then backed the Government motion supporting war by 412 to 149, majority 263.

In one of the most important speeches of his political career, the Prime Minister said he "would not be a party" to delaying military action, repeatedly accusing Saddam Hussein of failing to disclose full details of his weapons of mass destruction.

He said Iraq's declaration of December 8 was false and that in itself was a material breach of UN resolutions. "Iraq continues to deny that it has any weapons of mass destruction, though no serious intelligence service anywhere in the world believes them."

The Prime Minister had pinned his hopes of uniting his party and the country in a second United Nations resolution and agreement had been "very close" last Monday. But France, despite further efforts at negotiation, said it would veto any use of force.

Only the threat of force had led to any progress with Saddam, he said. "The only persuasive power to which he responds is 250,000 allied troops on his doorstep. And yet when that fact is so obvious we are told that any resolution that then authorises force in the event of non-compliance will be vetoed."

Mr Blair said a "reasonable" deal was on the table but was rejected by France. "I am not prepared to carry on waiting and delaying with our troops down there, in circumstances of great difficulty, when that country has made it clear that is a fixed position and will not change."

To those of his MPs and others throughout the world who wanted no military action, he asked them to consider the plight of the Iraqi people. "Darkness will close back over them. They will be left under his rule without any possibility of liberation, not from us not from anyone."

"This is not the time to falter, this is the time for this House . . . to give a lead, to show we will stand up for what we know to be right."

Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith backed the Government. "It is a solemn moment in the life of our nation and our thoughts and our prayers today must be with our troops and their families as they prepare for action.

"I want to make it clear from the outset that the official opposition tonight will be in the same lobby as the Government. The main reason we will be voting tonight (with the Government) is that this is in the British national interest. Saddam Hussein has the means, the mentality and the motive to pose a direct threat to our national security."

Liberal Party leader Charles Kennedy saw no contradiction in the position of those who remained "unpersuaded" of the need for war "giving voice to legitimate anxiety and at the same time, as and when exchange of fire commences, looking to the rest of the country, as well as all of us in the House, to give full moral support to our forces."

Tory Jonathan Sayeed (Mid Bedfordshire), who resigned from the shadow front bench over the Iraq crisis, insisted that the case for war had not yet been made. "Much more should have been done – and could have been done – to apply pressure on Saddam Hussein, he said.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble said France was solely responsible for "destroying the credible threat of force" which underpinned diplomatic efforts. The Americans could not be expected to "humiliate themselves' by bowing to such pressure, he said,

Labour MP for Medway Bob Marshall-Andrews claimed the Americans wished to overthrow Saddam Hussein. "They won't do it by war. It will be done by slaughter."

Ipswich MP Chris Mole, who last month backed a rebel amendment on action, last night supported the Government on both votes.

"I did so with a heavy heart but I was persuaded that the balance of the argument lay with military action. In part, my vote was swayed after talking with leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan, a people who have suffered at the hands of Saddam," said Mr Mole.

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