We must rethink our strategy says PM, as cabinet rift widens

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Tony Blair admitted last night that the US and Britain were losing the battle for mainstream Muslim and Arab opinion, as it emerged that he had rejected an appeal by his Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, to seek an early ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon.

In a speech delivered to the World Affairs Institute in Los Angeles, the Prime Minister said that the West was "very far" from persuading world opinion that it was fair or even-handed, in a speech that came close to an open rebuke to the US President, George Bush. But senior Labour figures will be furious that the Prime Minister once again failed to call for an immediate ceasefire in the Middle East.

As he returns to Britain today, Mr Blair will find himself an isolated figure in his own Cabinet over Lebanon. The dissent among senior Labour figures over Britain's approach to the conflict is now being seen as a growing challenge to the authority of the Prime Minister.

Mr Blair will defend his position at a monthly press conference tomorrow in Downing Street. He will then hand over the day-to-day running of the Government to John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, before going on holiday on Friday. But there are likely to be calls for Mr Blair to delay his holiday until the crisis is over, although critics of his diplomacy in the US said last night that his absence might even be a blessing.

"At home or abroad, he is dragging Britain further into the mire," said Frank Dobson, a former cabinet minister.

In his US speech, Mr Blair called for a "complete renaissance" of strategy to defeat international terrorism, suggesting a significant shift in emphasis from military force to the "soft power" of trade agreements and aid. He said: "'To defeat [terrorism] we need an alliance of moderation that paints a different future in which Muslim, Jew and Christian, Arab and Western, wealthy and developing nations can make progress towards peace and harmony with each other. My argument is that we won't tackle the cause of this global extremism unless we win it on the level of values as much as force; unless we show that we are even handed, fair and just".

But among senior ministers, his standing as an honest broker in the region was undermined by revelations that Mrs Beckett urged Downing Street to press President Bush on the issue.

Her advice was rejected, and the Foreign Secretary urged Mr Blair at least to object to the US use of British civilian airports as stop-overs for secret US and Israeli flights to deliver munitions to Israeli forces. But Mr Blair also shrugged off her complaints, leaving Mrs Beckett to make her dissatisfaction clear by saying she was going to demand some answers from the Americans about the use of British airports.

The row over the flights deepened the disquiet within the Cabinet as the Scottish Secretary, Douglas Alexander, ordered the planes to stop using Prestwick airport in Scotland. The Defence Secretary, Des Browne, arranged for the flights to be allowed to land instead at Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.

Some of Mr Blair's most senior ministers are now openly questioning his leadership on the issue. A number of cabinet ministers, including the key loyalists David Miliband and Lord Grocott, chief whip in the Lords, expressed their concern about the Israeli attacks in the Lebanon, as senior members of the Cabinet showed dissent at the final cabinet meeting before the summer recess. Some ministers who did not speak out are rumoured to have sent notes to Mr Blair saying: "Do not take our silence as consent."

Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary, became the first cabinet minister to break ranks publicly at the weekend by telling Muslims in his Blackburn constituency that he shared the views of Kim Howells, the junior foreign minister, that the bombing was "disproportionate".

Irwin Stelzer, an aide to Rupert Murdoch with close contacts in the Bush administration, said the Bush administration raised doubts about Mr Straw when he was foreign secretary, because of the high number of Muslims in his constituency. That raised questions over whether he was moved to please Washington.

The 'dissidents'

Margaret Beckett Foreign Secretary

Urged Tony Blair last week to press for an immediate ceasefire but was rebuffed. Thought to be uncomfortable defending the Government's line.

Jack Straw Leader of the Commons

Unhappy with the Government's support for Israel. He broke the cabinet silence at the weekend and criticised the Israeli bombardment.

David Miliband Environment Secretary

One of two cabinet ministers to speak out angrily over Britain's stance on the conflict when the Cabinet discussed the crisis. He has not commented publicly but sources said he was the "most coherent and vociferous" critic of Israeli action.

Peter Hain Northern Ireland Secretary

Thought not to have spoken up in Cabinet about the Middle East crisis but is understood to have deep private concerns.

Hilary Benn International Development

Critical of Britain's stance. He told MPs last week: "Violence offers no solution to the problems of the Middle East. [This] is a manifestation of the failure of the political process."