Back away from war, Labour warns Blair

Exclusive survey of top party officials reveals huge opposition to bombing

By Andy McSmith,Jo Dillon
Sunday 12 January 2003 01:00

Tony Blair and his ministers have been warned by Labour Party stalwarts from around the country against rushing into a war with Iraq. It is the sternest warning yet that the Prime Minister has received from his own party.

An Independent on Sunday survey of constituency party officers from the seats occupied by three dozen government ministers, including members of the Cabinet, has revealed overwhelming opposition to any military strike on Baghdad which is not sanctioned by the United Nations.

It comes as the Ark Royal sailed out of Portsmouth, with its young crew not knowing if they are embarking on a routine tour of the Far East or setting out to war. The flagship aircraft carrier will head the largest task force assembled by the UK since the Falklands War, more than 20 years ago.

At the same time, nearly 35,000 United States troops were given their marching orders, in the biggest troop deployment since the US began its build-up in the Gulf. By the end of January, the US's military strength in the region will exceed 100,000.

The Independent on Sunday survey coincides with reports from Washington that the strength of anti-war feeling in the Labour Party and across Europe may have given Iraq more time to avert a war.

Yesterday's Washington Post said that the prospect of a February war was "receding" because of the unambiguous message from US allies that the UN weapons inspectors need more time. The report singled out Tony Blair as one of the Western leaders urging Mr Bush to delay, stating he was "under increasing pressure from his own Labour Party".

The extent of that pressure is revealed in the Independent on Sunday survey. It showed that only two out of 35 constituency Labour Party officials felt that their members would support British involvement in a military strike without UN backing.

Mr Blair's chances of getting his party to support him will be vastly improved if the UN weapons inspectors are given time to uncover proof that Iraq has breached UN resolutions, leading the Security Council to sanction war. In those circumstances, 29 of those asked would be prepared to support a military strike – although some sounded uneasy at the prospect, while three opposed war in any circumstances.

Phil Riley, secretary of the Blackburn Labour Party – where the local MP is the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw – forecast that a "broad majority" of local party members would back military action but "it has to be with UN approval and also the approval of the House of Commons".

Mr Blair and Mr Straw have stressed that last week's military build-up does not mean that war is inevitable – although they insist that it depends entirely on the Iraqis whether the crisis can be resolved peacefully.

Mr Blair was in Hanover yesterday for private talks with the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder. Mr Schröder made opposition to war a key plank of his re-election campaign last year.

Tomorrow Mr Blair will set out to win over public opinion not just on the importance of disarming Saddam Hussein, but also on his plans for public sector reform. He will hold a televised press conference in Downing Street, and on Wednesday he will address Labour MPs.

At both sessions, Downing Street is anticipating difficult questions about Iraq, and about domestic issues such as university top-up fees, the plan to convert some NHS hospitals into self-governing foundation hospitals, and the threatened firefighters' strike.

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