The first cracks in the Government's ranks over Tony Blair's response to last week's attacks in America emerged yesterday when Clare Short suggested he was wrong to declare war on terrorism.
The Secretary of State for International Development said it would be "unbearable" if innocent people lost their lives because of the military response being planned by America. She urged Washington's allies to call for restraint.
She was given a gentle rebuke by Downing Street and Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, reflecting Mr Blair's view that, while everything must be done to avoid casualties, tough action is needed to ensure that more innocent people are not killed by terrorists.
Ms Short told BBC Radio: "A lot of innocent people have lost their lives – that's what is intolerable, and it would be unbearable if the response was a lot more people losing their lives and inflaming the atmosphere."
She added: "All countries who want to be friends with the US need to try and exert an influence to make sure that any response is proportionate, intelligent and informed, [that it] will deal with the real problem and will not escalate the problem and make things worse."
Asked about pledges by Mr Blair and President George Bush to launch a war on terrorism, Ms Short replied: "I don't think strident language is helpful but it is understandable. What is important is that we don't get strident action." She accepted the need for action but urged Mr Bush not to make life worse for the ordinary people of Afghanistan. She said they had suffered 20 years of war and four years of drought.
Mr Blair's official spokes-man claimed that Ms Short was reflecting his call for the "calm and measured" response that had been adopted by Washington. He insisted the Cabinet would remain united.
He said: "We do not want to see innocent casualties. Equally, we do not want further innocent civilians around the world to die as they did in the US." The spokesman warned that the response "was likely to lead to difficult decisions and difficult choices".
Ms Short's comments irritated Blair aides but will not have come as a surprise. She is an outspoken minister who is seen by Labour MPs as representing the party's conscience in the Cabinet. During the Gulf War she resigned as an Opposition frontbench spokesman over Neil Kinnock's strong support for military action. In 1998, she quit the front bench over Labour's line on the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Many Labour MPs will privately share her concerns. Labour backbenchers suspect her reservations are likely to be harboured by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, and Robin Cook, Leader of the Commons.
Simmering discontent in Labour's ranks over Mr Blair's pro-Washington line may surface at the party's annual conference in Brighton in two weeks. However, there is growing speculation that the event may be cancelled or curtailed if military action has begun. Several ministers would be unable to attend and the conference could be a security risk.
Mark Seddon, a member of Labour's national executive committee, called yesterday for a "full and proper debate" on the international crisis at the party conference. In a letter to David Triesman, the party's general secretary, he said: "I do request that serious consideration be given to allotting time for a serious debate which would be open to all shades of opinion within the party."
* Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, offered to suspend normal political hostilities last night and floated the idea that a senior shadow minister could sit on a cabinet committee handling Britain's response.Reuse content