Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, maintained that the raid on the Iraqi intelligence headquarters, which left six civilians dead, was 'justified and proportionate'. But, responding to a Labour demand for a statement, he was repeatedly challenged over the legality of the action and whether it breached the distinction between self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter, and plain retaliation.
George Robertson, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, told the House: 'The American action was dubious in legality, questionable in morality, haphazard in its military impact and potentially devastating in diplomacy. It should therefore never have been supported by the British government.'
A new world order could not be based on unilateral action by one side, however powerful, Mr Robertson said. Putting it more succinctly, Sir David Steel, for the Liberal Democrats, told Mr Hurd: 'He must tell President Clinton that 'might is right' is not the new world order.'
Sir David and Mr Robertson put essentially the same case. 'How can it be said that the raid is to be justified under Article 51 of the UN Charter, when the alleged assassination attempt (against George Bush, the former president) failed anyway, when it took place three months ago and the trial (in Kuwait) of the accused has not been completed?' Mr Robertson asked.
'How can it be said to be 'measured and appropriate' when the target building was in a busy city centre and three of the missiles, almost predictably, failed to hit the target and killed innocent civilians? How can the action be said to be effective when it has alienated our Arab allies and united Saddam's friends?'
The Labour spokesman drew protests from Tory MPs but cheers from backbenchers on his own side, some of whom were previously at odds with the leadership over support for the Gulf war.
Mr Hurd said he was 'surprised' by Mr Robertson's response. 'It seems to me rather a throwback to the old days from which I thought the Labour Party had recovered.' Ray Whitney, a former Tory Foreign Office minister, found Labour's reaction 'entirely predictable, and indeed Pavlovian'.
Under Article 51, force could be used 'in self-defence against threats to one's nationals', Mr Hurd said. 'Here is a state which has shown over and over again a propensity to engage in state terrorism, so there must be considered to be a constant threat of further attacks'.
Though most Tory backbenchers who spoke firmly supported the US action, one foreign affairs specialist, Cyril Townsend, MP for Bexleyheath, warned that Britain would need the support of some Arab countries over the next decade to contain Iraq and Iran. 'The position of Hezbollah and Hamas has been greatly strengthened by the events of the weekend. If Mr Hurd was a moderate in the Arab world, encouraging democracy and respect for human rights, let alone a Palestinian negotiator with the Israelis, his position would be fragile this afternoon.'
Patrick Cormack, Conservative MP for Staffordshire South and a consistent advocate of robust action to help the Bosnian Muslims, said if there was to be an internationally respected world order, there had to be even-handedness. 'Those who orchestrate, plan and perpetrate genocide should be treated at least as harshly as those who plan the death of a president.'
But the fiercest criticism came from two Labour MPs who recently visited Baghdad, Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) and George Galloway (Glasgow Hillhead). 'There are many people in this country who are simply nauseated by the alacrity with which the British prime minister endorsed the American criminal action,' Mr Dalyell said.
Mr Galloway believed the raid would fuel fundamentalism and imperil the very regimes to which the Foreign Office was closest. 'It will be seen as a tawdry, shabby attempt by a pathetic US president to divert attention from his miserable failures at home.' Mr Hurd said the two MPs had been 'thoroughly misled' about the situation in Baghdad.
A close relative of an Iraqi father and baby killed in the cruise missile attack sat in the public gallery of the Commons to hear Mr Hurd's defence. Kais al Khaisy, a British subject who lives in Swindon, was referred to by Labour's Tony Benn. The 18-month-old baby died in its father's arms and the mother was critically ill in hospital, according to the Chesterfield MP.
The real motive for the attack was 'so that President Clinton could get a reputation for being tough at home and the Prime Minister supported it because he is accused of indecision in this country', Mr Benn said. Turning to the Foreign Secretary, he added: 'Before he frames his answer, may I tell him that the brother of the man who was killed, the uncle of the baby, is here to hear his reply and the first apology we have had that innocent people should be killed by this murderous attack on Baghdad.'
Mr Hurd repeated his regret at the loss of civilian life but rejected the suggestion that there should be no response to attempts at state terrorism. If the planned car bombing of ex-President Bush had been successful it would have killed 'very large numbers' of innocent people.
John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, last night upstaged a debate on the pounds 2.8bn Thorp nuclear waste reprocessing plant at Sellafield, Cumbria, not to mention the pro-Thorp energy minister, with his announcement of a further round of consultations on the plant's future. A Liberal Democrat motion claiming increasingly strong economic, environmental and proliferation reasons for not bringing the thermal oxide reprocessing plant into operation was defeated by 157 votes to 43. Simon Hughes, the party's green spokesman, said there was growing international opposition to the plant, but Tim Eggar, Minister of State for Energy, laughed when Mr Hughes called for a public inquiry.
The real agenda of the lobby groups was to shut the nuclear industry down, Mr Eggar said as he warned against further delay. Serious problems with the start-up of Thorp would have 'implications' for Britain as a place in which to invest, particularly for the Japanese. But almost simultaneously, in a written answer, Mr Gummer threw in his green spanner. Final decisions by himself and Gillian Shephard, Minister for Agriculture, on revised authorisations for radioactive discharges from the plant must now await the outcome of consultations on the justification for the operation of Thorp.
Chris Smith, Labour's environment spokesman, urged a full environmental impact assessment coupled with wide public debate. 'The environmental considerations, the best waste management options and their different impacts, the full effect of emissions and discharges, do have to take primacy of place in reaching a conclusion.'
Mr Smith said he feared the Government had already made up its mind on the plant. But Mr Gummer's announcement and Mr Eggar's words to the Commons suggest it is in at least two minds.Reuse content