Inside Parliament: CND protesters help smooth Rifkind's path on defence cuts: Defence Secretary seizes gleefully on left-wingers' amendment - Labour backbenchers question support for sanctions against Iraq

Click to follow
Any qualms Malcolm Rifkind may have had about facing the Commons on its first day back to defend the continuing squeeze on Armed Forces budgets were eased by the reappearance of two old bogies, CND and the Labour Campaign Group.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marked the start of a two-day defence debate by abseiling off Westminster Bridge to unfurl two banners proclaiming 'For Peace Sake Scrap Trident' and 'Nuclear Free World or Nuclear Free For All?' Police quickly snuffed out the protest, removing the banners and escorting away two abseilers.

In the Commons the message was expanded in an amendment put down by members of the left- wing Campaign Group, taking their cue from the unilateralist motion passed against the leadership at the Labour Party conference. They estimate the lifetime costs of Trident deployment would be 'at least pounds 33bn'.

Exactly how many MPs support this line is unlikely to be tested in a vote as today the Labour leadership's own 'reasoned amendment' to a government motion will appear on the Order Paper and take precedence at the end of the debate.

Not that this procedural nicety deterred Mr Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, and Tory backbenches for whom the left-wing amendment represented the authentic view of the Labour Party.

Having assured MPs that the military presence on the streets of Northern Ireland would be scaled down as the terrorist threat subsided, and having repeated the promise that 'big upheavals' for the services were over, he set about the real enemy.

'Labour are a disgrace to the Armed Forces,' he said, mocking David Clark, his Opposition shadow, for repeatedly calling for a defence review as a way of saying nothing controversial.

'Over the past two years, the Labour Party, in a desperate attempt to appear reasonable on the subject, have avoided any comments that would either antagonise their own party supporters or antagonise the public.'

Mr Clark duly proposed a defence review, accusing Mr Rifkind of making 'cheap party political points'. The next Labour government would deploy Trident but with no more warheads than are carried by the Polaris missile submarines, he said.

Earlier, Labour backbenchers ruffled the frontbench consensus on Allied action against Saddam Hussein. Douglas Hogg, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, told MPs in a statement that by the end of this week there would be 1,000 British troops on the ground in Kuwait.

But Jeff Rooker, Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, said there would be more support for Kuwait - ruled by the Al Sabah family - if there had been more effort to bring about 'something remotely akin to a modernised democratic state'. Tony Benn, the MP for Chesterfield, highlighted the suffering of innocent civilians and asked why, when the UN monitor, Rolf Ekeus, had reported Iraqi compliance with Security Coucil weapons resolutions, Britain should follow the US in insisting on sanctions 'which may have more to do with the re-election of President Clinton's party in the elections'.

Tam Dalyell, MP for Linlithgow and a recent visitor to Baghdad, said sanctions helped to solidify Saddam's regime. 'The Iraqi people simply know that it has happened and, like it or not, the West is blamed for this.'

But Mr Hogg believed the MP was wrong about sanctions and said there was 'huge popular dissatisfaction and hatred' of Saddam in Iraq. 'Were he not murdering every opponent who has the courage to express a slightly contrary opinion, he would have been out by now.'