PM to head off backbench anger over war stance

War on Terrorism: British Politics
Click to follow
Indy Politics

Tony Blair will seek today to head off a backbench revolt over his unyielding support for the war on terrorism and quell calls for Parliament to return from its summer break to debate the deepening crisis.

He will host a series of meetings with more than 40 backbenchers, including opposition MPs, amid signs of growing anxiety in Labour ranks over Mr Blair's hardline response to the attacks.

A Downing Street spokesman said: "Just as building an international consensus is vital, so the Prime Minister believes building a broad coalition in this country is very important."

Mr Blair is calling in members of the Commons foreign affairs, defence and home affairs select committees and the security and intelligence parliamentary committee to explain the Government's strategy.

He will also meet Labour's parliamentary committee, the link between the leadership and the party's back benches. Mr Blair hopes the committee will play a vital role in shoring up support, particularly on the party's left, if the looming conflict becomes protracted and leads to British casualties.

The Commons is unlikely to be recalled this week, despite demands from senior backbenchers in both main parties for a full debate on the crisis. Some MPs were hoping that Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, could report to Parliament after he returns from a trip to Iran on Thursday.

Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP for Linlithgow, said the Commons must be brought back "before British troops are committed to any kind of action". The former Tory cabinet minister John Redwood said: "There is plenty to talk about – the economic crash and the developments in the drive against terrorism – and I don't think they can wait until the middle of October."

But the Government hopes today's series of meetings will be sufficient to head off demands to bring back Parliament and to ease anxieties on the Labour benches.

Ministers are acutely aware that many backbench MPs have grave reservations about the Government's strategy. Their fears have twice been voiced in the last week by Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development.

A former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle warned yesterday that hardliners in the White House were using the crisis to "settle old scores" with adversaries such as Iraq. He said: "If anything, they're going to make matters infinitely worse.

"There are lots of appalling regimes around the world and I think it's rather difficult for any one nation, or indeed group of nations, to arbitrarily pick from amongst those particular regimes that they despise and set out to overthrow. The last thing we need to do is encourage a whole new generation of potential suicide bombers."

Mohammed Sarwar, the Labour MP for Glasgow Govan and a Muslim, called for Britain and the US to concentrate on bringing the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks before an international court.

"My fear is that if the British government supported American actions outright then there is a real danger that the people and, in particular, the people in the Third World countries and Muslims will regard Britain as the yes-person of the US. If Britain sides with America then there is the danger terrorists will target Britain."

Bruce George, the Labour chairman of the defence select committee, warned: "If there is evidence that any state was providing intelligence to whoever the terrorists are or had provided them with protection, provided them with passports ... then it may well be that that country will be targeted. But if they are targeted the same rules apply and that is it must not be indiscriminate, it must be based on solid evidence."

As the Liberal Democrat conference got under way in Bournemouth, both Labour and the Tories dismissed suggestions that their conferences would be scaled back because of the international crisis.

John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, dismissed the report as "absolute speculation". A Conservative spokesman said: "Our plans are unaltered, although of course we keep the situation constantly under review."

Meanwhile, the newly appointed shadow Defence Secretary, Bernard Jenkin, appeared to breach his leader's promise to back the Government in its approach by criticising overstretching of the armed forces.

"There's no doubt about it that our armed forces are going to be very capably involved in whatever is decided but soldiers aren't getting enough leave. There hasn't been enough training with live equipment," Mr Jenkin said.

"These are issues that are going to be addressed very swiftly if there is going to be any sustained involvement of British forces on a large scale."