Tony Blair is facing the biggest Labour grassroots rebellion since he became party leader over his support for plans by the United States to take military action against Iraq.
Left-wing MPs who oppose the Prime Minister's approach have drawn up plans for a campaign aimed at forcing him to take a softer line. They are urging local Labour parties to call special meetings about Iraq, to pass resolutions rejecting military action and to flood a Labour review of defence policy with submissions hostile to the Prime Minister.
The anti-Blair moves are being orchestrated by the Campaign Group of left-wing MPs. Although it has only 27 members, dissent in Labour's ranks over Iraq runs much deeper, with 122 Labour MPs signing a Commons motion expressing "deep unease" about military intervention.
Organisers are confident a majority of the 641 constituency Labour parties will oppose action against President Saddam Hussein's regime. Many are expected to urge the Government to switch its focus to solving the Palestine question.
The rebels will demand a debate on Iraq at Labour's annual conference in September and will bombard the defence review to put to the test a pledge by Charles Clarke, the Labour chairman, to give party members more influence over the Government's policies.
In a letter to Labour activists, the Campaign Group urges them to "encourage" their MP to oppose military action. "Labour members, in framing submissions [to the policy review], may want to note the views of the many Labour MPs who are alarmed that a military assault on Iraq – opposed by all states in the region and against a backdrop of Israeli occupation – will inflame anger and tension."
The group also urges Labour activists to challenge Mr Blair over his apparent support for President George Bush's "son of Star Wars" plans. It rejects claims in a consultative document by Labour headquarters that the Missile Defence programme is "defensive," insisting that it would spur a new nuclear arms race. It also urges local parties to reject a rise in Britain's defence spending, saying that public services should have greater priority.
Alice Mahon, the Labour MP who tabled the Commons motion, said yesterday that Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, had "no authority" to speak for Labour when they said respectively that Britain should adopt a more "active and engaged" foreign policy and would be prepared to use nuclear weapons against states of concern such as Iraq.
Ms Mahon said: "Labour Party members may want to ask on what authority is Jack Straw launching this new policy. Jack Straw is not, for example, suggesting Britain intervene to help the Palestinians. If Britain is trying to be a global policeman on the US scale, the money is going to come from hospitals, schools, pensions and the other necessities of people's lives."
A further sign that the rebellion over Iraq is growing came yesterday when two senior Labour MPs criticised plans for a military response. Writing on the website of Red Pepper magazine, Tony Lloyd, a former Foreign Office minister, said: "Any massive strike against Iraq would further polarise and alienate opinion within the Middle East and broader afield."
Ian Gibson, the MP for Norwich North, said: "The cause of terrorism is not fanatics, extremists, fundamentalists but instability, disempowerment, marginalisation and the anger generated by these combined factors. If the United States invades Iraq, it will nourish these sentiments in the Middle East."
Mr Straw sought to quell the rebellion when he said: "I don't think for a second there is going to be an imminent US attack on Iraq." He said the Bush administration had a record of acting with caution and would not launch a military strike against Iraq without "wide consultation" with its allies.Reuse content