Blair accuses rebels in his party of 'alliance' with Tories

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair hit back at Clare Short yesterday as he pleaded for Labour Party unity, but the former cabinet minister returned to the attack by claiming that the Attorney General was "leant on" to give the Government legal authority for the Iraq war.

Writing in The Independent today, Ms Short defies calls by Labour loyalists for her to observe a "period of silence" after her allegation that Britain spied on the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan.

Describing the response to her allegation as "extraordinary", Ms Short goes further by suggesting that the legal advice given by Lord Goldsmith was "manipulated" on the eve of the military conflict.

In an impassioned speech to the Scottish Labour Party conference in Inverness, the Prime Minister accused Labour rebels of being in an "alliance" with the Tory party to unseat the Government and he drew the battlelines for the next general election by warning of the threat of a "Thatcherite" Conservative revival under Michael Howard.

In a pointed reference to rebellions over Iraq, foundation hospitals and top-up fees, he warned that the Tories always posed a bigger threat "when they get a little help from our friends". Mr Blair said: "It's the auld alliance. No, not France and Scotland. The alliance that attacks the Labour Party in government throughout its history. The alliance between some of our own folk who are happier in opposition and the Tory party who are desperate to get out of it."

Ms Short, who renewed her call for Mr Blair to stand down, suffered a backlash yesterday when Labour MPs accused her of making her spying allegation to destabilise the Prime Minister. Even some of her fellow critics of the war in Iraq joined the chorus of criticism of the former international development secretary.

Some Labour MPs want Ms Short to be punished by losing the Labour whip. That looks unlikely at present, although it could happen if she maintains her campaign and there is a groundswell of support for disciplinary action in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Blair loyalists hope her attack will backfire. "She is a weapon of self-destruction," one said.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, refused to rule out a formal investigation into whether Ms Short had breached the Official Secrets Act. "We are weighing the detail," he said. But he cast doubt on her allegation, saying that he had not read any transcripts of Mr Annan's telephone calls. "I am one of the very few people - and Clare Short is not one of them - who have clearance for the full security material that comes through," he said.

Jack Cunningham, a former cabinet minister, said: "Clare seems to have abandoned all those obligations which she freely accepted and undertook when she joined the Cabinet six years ago."

George Foulkes, her former deputy at the Department of International Development, said: "This is part of Clare's political agenda to undermine the Prime Minister, and it is damaging both to the Government and to the party which gave her all the privileges she enjoyed in government."

Ms Short writes in The Independent: "As I go over and over events leading up to the rush to war, I cannot help but conclude that the way in which the Attorney General's opinion was produced and handled was very strange. It is hard not to suspect that he had doubts and was leant upon."

She reveals that she was informed at the time that the armed forces "would not move without the Attorney General's authorisation". Ms Short also revives the controversy over Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction by highlighting claims that "one of the reasons for the exaggeration of the threat from WMD in Iraq was to manufacture legal authority for war".

She insists that transcripts of Mr Annan's telephone calls were regularly circulated. She dismisses as "laughable" Mr Blair's suggestion that she had put Britain's security services at risk by making her claim.