Blair bows to pressure and grants MPs vote on Iraq

By Andrew Grice Political Editor
Wednesday 20 November 2002 01:00
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Tony Blair has bowed to pressure to grant MPs a full-scale debate and vote on Iraq, but the prospect of an embarrassing rebellion by backbenchers spurred Labour whips to embark on a concerted arm-twisting operation yesterday.

The Cabinet will tomorrow agree the wording of the Government motion to be debated in the Commons. It is expected to be in line with the resolution agreed unanimously by the United Nations Security Council, which gives Iraq one last chance to avoid war by ridding itself of its weapons of mass destruction.

Until now, Mr Blair has avoided a formal Commons vote on Iraq amid fears that a revolt by Labour MPs would undermine his tough line against Saddam Hussein. In September, 53 Labour backbenchers registered their concern over his support for President George Bush by rebelling on a technical motion to adjourn the House.

After persuading the US President to pursue the UN route rather than launch unilateral military action, the Prime Minister believes the time is right to seek Parliament's formal backing. Rebel Labour MPs might table their own amendment questioning the US-British approach and demanding that a war must be authorised by a new vote at the UN. But Government whips, who began contacting potential rebels early yesterday morning, hope the revolt will be smaller than in September because military action is not seen as imminent.

Anti-war MPs face a dilemma over whether to vote against the Government. Some are reluctant to rock the boat, but others fear that a big majority on Monday will be cited by Mr Blair as an endorsement for military action later.

Malcolm Savidge, MP for Aberdeen North, said last night: "I do not want to be in a position of giving a blank cheque for any action. People may assure us beforehand that voting for the Government motion would not be interpreted as the go-ahead for whatever the US wants to do. But what guarantees does that give us for what they might say later?"

Mr Blair's united front with the US was under strain yesterday after British and American planes came under fire from Iraqi forces while patrolling the no-fly zones in Iraq.

The White House said the attack was a "a material breach" of the UN's resolutions, a definition which could justify military strikes without waiting for the findings of the UN's weapons inspectors.

Downing Street said the attacks on the planes would not be a trigger for war, but denied any split with Washington. Mr Blair's official spokesman said: "Obviously it is a violation of the UN resolutions to fire on British and American aircraft in the no-fly zones. It is then ... a matter for the UN Security Council to decide what to do."

Mr Blair will not speak in Monday's debate. The Opposition is expected to vote with the Government, although some Tory MPs have reservations.

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