Tory dismay at Howard's stance on war

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Michael Howard faced a backlash from senior Tories after saying he would have approved the invasion of Iraq even though Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction.

Michael Howard faced a backlash from senior Tories after saying he would have approved the invasion of Iraq even though Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction.

His hawkish stance dismayed colleagues who fear the party is failing to exploit Labour's discomfort over the issue after the leak of the Attorney General's advice. Asked on BBC1's Question Time if he would have backed the war in the absence of WMD, the Tory leader replied: "Yes, I would have supported the war, because I think it was the right thing to do."

He added: "Saddam Hussein had been in breach of many UN Security Council resolutions. I think he was a threat to the peace of the region and a threat to the wider peace in the world."

Mr Howard rejected the accusation that his position amounted to an illegal policy of regime change, describing it instead as "regime change plus".

But his hard line, echoing the US President George Bush, risked reopening the party's wounds over the war. Sixteen Tory MPs voted against the invasion in 2003, others have said they would not have supported the invasion had they known Saddam did not possess an illegal weapons arsenal.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary expected to return as an MP next week, made clear yesterday his leader's views were not shared by all his colleagues.

He said: "He was expressing his personal view. Whether that would have happened would have depended on whether he could have persuaded his cabinet colleagues and Parliament with full knowledge of what was involved that that was the right thing to do."

Sir Malcolm, a potential successor as Tory leader, told Radio 4's Today programme: "Michael Howard's position is very clear, it is very unequivocal. You may not like it, a lot of people may not like it, but you know where you stand."

Last night, a spokesman for Mr Howard stressed he was speaking in a personal capacity and would always consult his cabinet before taking such a decision.

A Tory source said Mr Howard and several confidants, including George Osborne, the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, were instinctively "neo-conservatives" who advocated the military removal of hostile regimes.

He said: "They take the line Bush takes on WMD. The fact there were no WMD is not an issue for them. Howard says it is a good thing they took out Saddam Hussein. He agrees totally with Bush on that."

A Tory candidate in the South-west said: "People are saying Blair lied over the war. But it's hard for us to take advantage of that."

Mr Howard has also been warned that "flip-flopping" on Iraq risks losing support - the same as John Kerry, the Democrat presidential challenger, whose ratings collapsed after he changed tack on the war.

"Floating voters think it would be a mistake if Howard appeared to abandon support for the war, according to our polling," said the source. "Appearing to flip-flop is highly damaging, as John Kerry showed."

Other Tories are critical of their leader for accusing Tony Blair of being a "liar" because it focuses on Iraq, which they believe does not cut much ice with voters.

"At its best, Iraq is a neutral issue for us, but I don't think you can squeeze any extra votes out of it," one candidate said.

Andrew Lansley, the shadow Health Secretary, who as a backbencher voted against the war, dodged a challenge yesterday to repeat the charge that Mr Blair was a liar.

He said the facts had been clearly set out by his party leader and "people will make their own judgments about that".

On the justification for the war, he said: "Michael Howard has set out very clearly many times in the past his judgment on that. The issue is about character and the issue is about who people can trust."

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, was scathing. He said "The inevitable consequence of the Tory position as stated by Mr Howard is that he would have been prepared to wage an illegal war against Iraq."

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