Labour opponents of the military strikes on Afghanistan were compared to appeasers of the Nazis yesterday by Adam Ingram, the Armed Forces minister.
He rebuked them after Paul Marsden, the MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham, told of a stormy confrontation with Hilary Armstrong, the Chief Whip, over his demands for a free vote in the Commons on the war. According to Mr Marsden, she told him that war was not a matter of conscience and likened him to those who turned a blind eye to Hitler before the Second World War.
Mr Ingram said yesterday that he fully backed Ms Armstrong and would have used the same language to his backbench colleague. Asked by Sky TV if he regarded Labour critics of the war as the moral equivalent of Nazi appeasers, he said: "I think we are moving towards that. I think we are dealing with an evil that is stalking the world today which has very clear analogies towards Nazism and Fascism and those who give it succour and support have got to question their judgement."
Mr Ingram said the key issue was not backing the Government, but "supporting people in the front line, people who are prepared to lay their lives down for freedom and for their country". His outburst reflects frustration in Government ranks over the hostility to the action among some of its MPs. Although there are probably fewer than a dozen outright opponents, others are expressing fears the long-term implications of the action have not been fully thought through.
Alan Simpson, the MP for Nottingham South, said: "It is really unhelpful and rather foolish to indulge in the language of caricature and abuse. It just makes everyone look rather shallow. I don't know anyone who doubts the wisdom of the war who I would regard as an appeaser." He said opposition to the war on Labour benches went beyond the "usual suspects".
Mr Marsden told yesterday of his bruising 45-minute encounter with Ms Armstrong during which he said she forebade him from speaking to the press. She allegedly appealed to him to join the party's "mainstream" and shouted at him: "War is not a matter of conscience." The Labour backbencher and former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle told the BBC: "If war's not a matter of conscience, I don't know what is. If she [Hilary Armstrong] said that I find it extraordinary."
Labour sources dismissed suggestions that they were going to make an example of Mr Marsden by stripping him of the party whip. He and a handful of other backbenchers are threatening to defy the Government in the Commons tomorrow by backing a Tory motion condemning the behaviour of the spin doctor Jo Moore, whose notorious memorandum of 11 September said it would be a good day to "bury" bad news.
Labour's sensitivities on the uncertain course of the military action were underlined by the disclosure that Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, had pulled out of appearing before the select committee that shadows her department.
She refused to give evidence because she did not want tomorrow's session to be dominated by questions on the bombing of Afghanistan or the country's humanitarian crisis. The Tory MP Tony Baldry, the committee chairman, said: "She wanted to concentrate on the entire department's programme. We said that was untenable."
The Prime Minister's official spokesman, when asked about the criticism of the Government's strategy, said: "We should keep in mind the image of those two planes flying into the twin towers and remember the unanswered phone messages of those trapped inside." He said Osama bin Laden's supporters had threatened to repeat the attacks.Reuse content