Blair sticks to his script over ceasefire as the backlash begins

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair was condemned yesterday for failing to call for an immediate ceasefire in the Middle East, despite mounting public fury about his stance ­ fuelled by outrage at the bombing in Qana.

The Prime Minister, in San Francisco, stuck to his position of demanding a UN resolution as protesters across the country took to the streets to express their anger at the Israeli military action in the Lebanon.

In Westminster, there was evidence of a widening cabinet rift over Britain's approach to the conflict across the Israeli-Lebanese border, with some Labour figures warning that the row over Mr Blair's stance was increasing the pressure for him to stand down.

Breaking off from his US trip, the Prime Minister said the violence could not continue. He said: "There is the basis for an agreement that will allow us to get a UN resolution, but we have to get this now. We have to speed this entire process up and get a resolution now and on the passing and agreement and passing of that resolution hostilities have got to stop ­ and stop on all sides.

"This is an absolutely tragic situation but we have got to make sure that the discussions we are having and the negotiations we are conducting does lead to a genuine cessation of hostilities in a way that allows us to put an end to them for good."

His comments were not warmly received by anti-war protesters and some critics within his own party, with Blairites warning that his stance over the conflict meant he was bleeding support among MPs.

One normally loyal MP said: "Mr Blair is struggling on this. There are certainly loyalists saying he has got this completely wrong. This is the straw that broke the camel's back." Another loyalist added: "For Blair himself, this is seriously bad".

One backbencher added: "There are a lot of people ­ not the usual suspects ­ deeply concerned that there seems to be no demonstrable evidence that Britain is having a moderating influence on Israel."

The renewed criticism came a day after Jack Straw, the Leader of the Commons, broke ranks to condemn Israel for causing "death and misery to innocent civilians" and criticised Israeli attacks on Southern Lebanon as "disproportionate".

Privately, Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, is believed to share concerns about Mr Blair's policy, while David Miliband, the Environment Secretary, and Lord Grocott, the chief whip in the Lords, are understood to have spoken out about the issue at last week's cabinet meeting.

One senior government source said: "Jack was certainly not the only person in the Cabinet feeling concerned about our position."

Yesterday Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, said the Government was united in its desire to seek an end to the violence but acknowledged that senior ministers might not "see 100 per cent eye to eye" on the issue. She told Sky News: "You can focus on where there are things that people don't see 100 per cent eye to eye about or where there are the things that they agree about.

"What really matters in my view is that everybody in this government, everybody in this country would like to see the hostilities in the Middle East brought to an end."

Another Labour insider warned that anger had been sparked by news of Israeli bomb shipments refuelling in Scotland: "It's one thing talking about this. It's another thing to help supply it."

It was reported yesterday that the American flights used Scotland airport after the Irish government refused them landing rights at Shannon airport in County Clare while it also emerged that two aircraft bound for Israel, carrying "hazardous loads", had been diverted to RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk.

In London a crowd of about 2,000 people, including members of the Jewish community gathered at Trafalgar Square.

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