Labour MPs warned that attack on Blair spells poll defeat

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Labour MPs were warned yesterday that criticising Tony Blair over the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq could cost the party the next general election.

But the former cabinet minister Clare Short quickly defied the plea for unity as she warned that the public would not trust the Government on other issues because of the way it "deceived" them by exaggerating the danger posed by Iraq.

Ms Short claimed in the Commons that Mr Blair had secretly promised President George Bush last summer to go to war in Iraq. She said: "Three very, very senior figures in Whitehall said to me that the Prime Minister had agreed in the summer [last year] to the date of 15 February for military action and that was later extended to mid-March. At the time the Prime Minister was telling us he was committed to the second resolution and I preferred at the time to believe the Prime Minister. I now think, just reflecting and examining and reading everything that was done, I now believe the evidence is overwhelming that there was a date."

The former international development secretary said: "The fact that there was deceit on the way to military action is a very grave accusation I am making. If we can be deceived about this then what can we not be deceived about?"

Only a few hours earlier, John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, warned the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party that rebel MPs would play into the hands of Labour's political opponents if they maintained their criticism over WMD. He spoke of the danger to Labour if the integrity of the Government was called into doubt, and declared: "The Prime Minister does not lie."

His intervention was part of a concerted drive to isolate Mr Blair's critics on Iraq. But it was also seen at Westminster as a sign that the Government is rattled by the deepening controversy over WMD.

Most Labour MPs rallied round Mr Blair during a stormy session of Prime Minister's Questions. Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative leader, seized on claims by John Reid, Leader of the Commons, that "rogue elements" in the security services were trying to undermine the Government. Mr Reid's counter-attack followed claims by unnamed intelligence sources that the security services were ordered to "sex up" evidence that the Iraqis could deploy WMD within 45 minutes for a government dossier published last September.

Amid signs that Mr Reid's intervention had backfired, the former foreign secretary Robin Cook accused him of "lighting bush fires" to divert attention. Downing Street stood by Mr Reid but stopped short of repeating his allegation that "rogue elements" were at work. Number 10 refused to confirm that an inquiry was under way but Ben Bradshaw, the deputy Leader of the Commons, said he expected intelligence chiefs to root out the "rogue" sources. "I suspect that the intelligence services, as they always would, would take any unauthorised briefing from their members extremely seriously," he said.

Mr Blair praised the "magnificent" work of the intelligence services and hailed their "professionalism and integrity". He told the Commons: "There was no attempt at any time by any official or minister or member of No 10 Downing Street staff to override the intelligence judgements of the Joint Intelligence Committee."

He said the claim that Iraq could deploy some WMD at 45 minutes' notice "was a judgement made by the Joint Intelligence Committee and by them alone".

He revealed that the information came from "an established and reliable" source and not an Iraqi defector.

But Mr Duncan Smith said: "The truth is that nobody now believes a word that the Prime Minister says. Now we have the unedifying sight of the Leader of the House being sent to do his bidding and attack elements of the security services, which is disgraceful."

The Tories demanded an independent judicial inquiry into the WMD controversy. This was rejected by Mr Blair, who promised full co-operation with an investigation by Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee, which reports directly to him.

A Liberal Democrat call for an independent inquiry into No 10's handling of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war was defeated by 301 votes to 203 in the Commons last night. Many Labour MPs abstained and 11 voted for the motion - Harry Barnes (Derbyshire North East); Harry Cohen (Leyton & Wanstead); Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North); Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow); Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North); Glenda Jackson (Hampstead & Highgate); Robert Marshall- Andrews (Medway); Brian Sedgemore (Hackney South & Shoreditch); Alan Simpson (Nottingham South), Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent) and Robert Wareing (Liverpool West Derby).

The Tories are to table a fresh motion calling for a tribunal of inquiry to be set up into the intelligence gathered before the war. They hope the call will be endorsed by the House of Lords, putting pressure on Labour rebels to inflict a defeat in the Commons by approving the move. It would take 85 Labour MPs to join forces with the other parties for the proposal to go ahead.

Kenneth Clarke, a former Conservative chancellor, asked Mr Blair in the Commons whether he still believed that Saddam's weapons were such an imminent threat that military intervention was justified. He warned the Prime Minister: "If he is still standing by that, does he understand how serious it will be if it turns out that it was not true at all and the consequences it will have for our confidence that the problems of Iran and Korea will be dealt with on a truly internationalist and legal basis?"

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, appeared to qualify the Government's claim that Saddam could have deployed WMD within 45 minutes. He told MPs: "The dossier was far more carefully worded than the newspapers have reworded it, that Saddam's 'military planning allows for some of the WMD to be readied within 45 minutes of an order to use them'. That is actually, it seems to me, quite unremarkable since most materiel is available or can be made available within 45 minutes of an order to use it and often the order to use it is not given until it's known that it is available for use."

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