Iraq Bombings: Labour Dissent: Blair `wants to be Thatcher and Churchill'

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The Independent Online
AS LABOUR MPs sat in a crowded House of Commons tearoom yesterday, their discussion of the Iraq crisis kept returning to one issue: Tony Blair's high-profile role. "He seems to want to be Thatcher and Churchill rolled into one," said one Labour backbencher.

Even MPs who supported the bombing were surprised that the Prime Minister had announced Wednesday night's raids more than 40 minutes before Bill Clinton told America.

Close aides say Mr Blair's fierce patriotism means he does not pull his punches during international crises. "He almost wants to fly the Tornados himself," one minister said.

Mr Blair is in no doubt that the use of force is justified. "It would be a dereliction of our duty if we had not taken the action we have done," he told yesterday's cabinet meeting.

Ministers admit privately that the imminent vote on the President's impeachment is a case of "unfortunate timing". But Mr Blair is adamant that Mr Clinton's actions are not related to his domestic traumas.

The lukewarm international support for military strikes is a far cry from the impressive coalition assembled against Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Britain launched a diplomatic offensive yesterday, when the Prime Minister wrote to the other 14 European Union leaders, sent messages to top Commonwealth countries and tried to make contact with Russia and China - both of which have been critical of the strikes.

Last night, Downing Street denied that Britain and the US were isolated, saying that there had been positive reactions from Germany, Spain, Canada, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Japan and Australia.

Although Mr Blair won the support of the Tories, the Liberal Democrats and the majority of Labour MPs, ministers are worried that a sizeable minority of Labour backbenchers will cause problems in the days ahead. George Galloway, one of the most vociferous critics, said more backbenchers now opposed action than in February, when 28 voted against military action and about 50 abstained.

Back in 1991, four current ministers - John Prescott, Robin Cook, Clare Short and Margaret Beckett - incurred the wrath of Neil Kinnock, then leader of the Opposition, by expressing reservations about the Gulf War when Mr Kinnock was desperate to prove Labour was no longer "soft" on defence.