The surprise came late on Tuesday in New York, when Britain, in the Council chair, scheduled a vote on the resolution. After weeks of hard diplomatic graft, to find a compromise over the degree of Iraqi compliance with the UN required to trigger a suspension of sanctions, Britain believed it had finally won safe passage for the resolution.
But the French ambassador called for a further delay to come up with a new formulation that could win Iraqi approval.
Britain's public reaction has been one of patience: "We don't want to close a window if there's the slightest possibility of maximum consensus," Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the UK ambassador to the UN, said, referring to the possibility of persuading France to vote "Yes" and increase the resolution's authority in Iraqi eyes.
Privately, Britain believes France is playing for time, caught between incurring the wrath of the US by trying to weaken the proposed resolution further, and aligning itself with the Anglo-Americans and risking lucrative contracts in Iraq, once sanctions are lifted.
The French now want to put the controversy on the agenda of Friday's foreign ministers' meeting of the G-8 group of leading countries, including Russia and the US. But this is opposed by Britain. It would mean that the Council could not vote before Friday, probably Monday. After that comes the Christmas break, followed by entry of a new set of non-permanent members on the Council.
"That means in practice we'd have to start again from scratch," one British diplomat said. "We don't want another Anglo-French spat, and we want to get as broad support as possible. But obviously, this can't go on for ever."