Backbench Tories break ranks from their leader over any attack plans

A succession of Tory MPs broke ranks with Iain Duncan Smith yesterday to make clear their concerns about British support for unilateral military action by America in Iraq.

Dissent that materialised at a meeting on Monday night of the party's backbench 1922 Committee was underlined by a series of interventions in the Commons.

From Douglas Hogg, a Foreign Office minister during the Gulf War, to Edward Leigh, the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, MPs from left and right lined up to express opposition to President Bush's plans for "regime change". Lord King of Bridgwater, who was Defence Secretary during the Gulf War, also criticised those in the White House who had said there was no point in trying to get weapons inspectors back into Iraq because they were bound to fail.

In contrast to Mr Duncan Smith's overall support for the Government's stance, many of his backbenchers demanded to know what Britain's exit strategy would be and the shape of a post-Saddam regime.

Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, encountered similar concerns when he addressed the 1922 Committee. Backbenchers said they were worried about a possible backlash from President Saddam against Britain and the failure by the US to tackle the Middle East peace process.

Some MPs were particularly dismayed at the offer made by Mr Duncan Smith to Mr Blair in a private meeting that he would join forces with the Government to present a common front on the issue.

It is understood that Keith Simpson, a defence spokesman, has warned that MPs are worried about the Opposition giving Mr Blair a "blank cheque" for any action.

Many Tory MPs have long backed Arab interests and although they support Britain's relationship with the US, they were vitriolic about President Bush's decision to swap deterrence for a pre-emptive strategy against rogue states.

The most senior Tory MP with such worries, the former prime minister John Major, was absent from the debate yesterday but colleagues echoed his fear that an attack on Baghdad would leave President Saddam with little option but to use his weapons.

Mr Ancram said: "In any party there are differing views. We were talking about the various options that are open and about the evidence we would see in the document [the dossier]."

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