Labour MPs rock Blair on Iraq

By GRAHAM DINESPolitical EditorLABOUR MPs delivered a massive snub to Tony Blair's preparations for war last night when 122 of them defied a three-line whip to support an amendment that war was "yet unproven.

By Graham Dines


Political Editor

LABOUR MPs delivered a massive snub to Tony Blair's preparations for war last night when 122 of them defied a three-line whip to support an amendment that war was “yet unproven.”

Liberal Democrats, some senior Tories, and nationalist members joined this public show of hostility to the build-up for war.

But amendment was defeated, thanks partly to Conservative support, by 393 votes to 199, a Government majority 194.

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However, the scale of backing for it, as anti-war demonstrators protested outside Parliament, was far more than Government ministers had feared.

Senior parliamentarians, including Tory grandees John Gummer, Kenneth Clarke and Douglas Hogg and Labour former Cabinet ministers Frank Dobson and Chris Smith, were among those who believed weapons inspectors should be given more time to disarm Saddam.

After the amendment was defeated, the Government's motion was approved by 434 votes to 124, majority 310, with 59 Labour MPs again voting against a three-line whip.

Leading the rebellion, Mr Smith warned that if MPs backed the Government it would signal that they endorsed a timetable that leads “inexorably to war within the next three to four weeks.”

Dismissing claims that those urging caution were appeasing a tyrant, Mr Smith said: “That I have to say is the shallowest argument of all.”

Tory former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke insisted the case for war against Iraq had not yet been proved and called for more time to be given to diplomatic efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein.

“I cannot rid myself of doubts that the course to war we are now embarked on was actually decided on many months ago, primarily in Washington, and we've seen a fairly remorseless unfolding of events since that time.”

The Government's case was presented by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who warned belligerently that it was close to the crunch point for Saddam Hussein as both inspections and containment had failed to rein in the Iraqi dictator.

He accused Saddam of prevaricating and failing to disarm his “horrific arsenal” of chemical and biological weapons for 12 years.

In the 110 days since resolution since the United Nations passed resolution 1441 that required Iraq's full, active and immediate compliance with weapons inspectors, Saddam had failed to comply.

“In place of active voluntary co-operation, we have had a string of cynically timed concessions calculated to divide and delay.” Saddam's tactic, said Mr Straw, was to "dribble' out small concessions to delay military action.

His Tory opposite number Michael Ancram supported the Government but called on it to clarify the arguments for war and told Mr Straw: “Too often the public has been confused by the changing focus of the arguments that the Government has put forward and it really is time now that you clarify your objectives and that you make the case more clearly.”

For the Liberal Democrats, Michael Moore said his party shared the doubts expressed by Mr Smith and would support the rebel amendment and vote against the Government motion. “We believe the decision by the British, Americans and Spanish to table a new resolution at the UN is premature.

“All of us want to see the Iraqi regime disarmed and Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction destroyed. Under the existing resolution the weapons inspectors are carrying out a clear mandate to inspect and report to the Security Council.

“They must be given sufficient time to carry out and complete their tasks. War can only be a last resort when all other political and diplomatic options have been exhausted – we have not reached that point.”

Labour left-winger George Galloway, who has visited Saddam in Baghdad in the past for talks, issued an impassioned plea against war. He said this was the first chance in years for Parliament to change the course of world events.

“If this Parliament sends the message tonight that the British people are not with this adventure, it will have a decisive impact on opinion in the USA.”