Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, fuelled the Labour revolt over Iraq yesterday when he said Britain could join a military strike on Saddam Hussein without gaining approval from the United Nations.
His remarks will infuriate the ranks of restive Labour MPs, 118 of whom have signed a Commons motion opposing an extension of the war on terrorism to Iraq.
The Government found itself under attack from its own backbenchers on an array of issues yesterday while rumours raged that Tony Blair could even face a "stalking horse" leadership challenge later this year.
But as ministers took to the airwaves to calm the increasingly febrile atmosphere and Whitehall sources insisted Mr Blair was acting as a restraining influence on the US administration, Mr Hoon showed little mood for compromise.
Asked whether a UN mandate was necessary before military action against Iraq, he said: "There are clearly a range of legal options available to us. Going back to the United Nations is only one of them."
He told ITV's Jonathan Dimbleby programme: "As far as I understand the position, legally we would be perfectly entitled to use force as we have done in the past without the support of a United Nations Security Council resolution."
Mr Hoon said Britain retained the right to use "appropriate, proportionate responses" – including in extreme circumstances nuclear weapons – against the Iraqi regime.
His tough remarks appeared at odds with Clare Short, the International Development Secretary, who has said that military action against Iraq would require a specific mandate from the UN, and they came as Labour MPs lined up to condemn the Government's stance on Iraq.
The veteran Labour MP Tam Dalyell said: "It's absolutely outrageous. This isn't a war that's simply forced on people. This isn't an optional war. UN resolutions are at the very heart of the supposed reasons for going to war."
Earlier, the former cabinet minister Chris Smith said: "A lot of my colleagues, including myself, would be worried if there were something being contemplated which was all-out invasion of Iraq simply going on the coat-tails of an American unilateral decision."
Speculation about secret plotting in Westminster among malcontent MPs to find a challenger to Mr Blair was fuelled by a survey which found 54 per cent of people judged his premiership a "disappointment" and a fifth believed he should step down now. The poll also put the Conservatives on 33 per cent, just seven points behind Labour, the closest they have been for more than 18 months.
Mr Blair brushed aside the reports of a challenge as of "no real significance at all". He said: "It is not for the first time. People have always attacked me and that is part of politics. I am grown up and I can take it."
Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, mounted a fierce defence of the Government's record. He said: "People can [challenge] if they wish but I would be astonished if they won." The former cabinet minister Peter Mandelson said talk of a leadership plot was a "gigantic great wind-up".
Meanwhile, in a softening of tone last night, senior Whitehall sources said Mr Blair would use his coming summit with President George Bush to urge caution against immediate military action against Iraq. He will argue plans for a new regime must be in place before any move is made to oust Saddam Hussein. The sources said that negotiations with Russia and other countries on a new UN resolution providing for "smart" sanctions against Iraq were progressing well.Reuse content