Iraq: Labour rebels grow to 200

Tony Blair faces a massive backbench revolt and threats of resignations from junior members of the Government over Iraq.

As the Prime Minister made a final bid to avert war, which could be barely a week away, calling for Saddam Hussein to stand down and go into exile, opposition in Britain intensified. Five parliamentary private secretaries ­ the first rung of the Government ladder ­ said they would resign if Britain waged war in the absence of a proper United Nations resolution.

They include Anne Campbell, PPS to Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt; Andy Reed, PPS to Secretary of State for Environment, Margaret Beckett; Michael Jabez Foster, PPS to Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General; and Tony Wright, PPS to Ruth Kelly, the Financial Secretary. A fifth was named as Ken Purchase MP, an aide to Leader of the House of Commons, Robin Cook.

As many as 200 Labour MPs may rebel when the Commons next votes on Iraq. Last time an unprecedented 121 Labour MPs voted against their own government.

Britain will lead a call for Saddam Hussein to stand down and go into exile in a final bid to avert a war which could be barely a week away.

The suggestion that another ruler would improve Iraq's chances of regaining international trust will be part of Britain's case for confronting the Baghdad regime with a final deadline to comply with UN resolutions or be attacked.

But the plea for Saddam to quit will be seen by some as a sign of the desperately tight political corner Tony Blair is now in. Yesterday the Iraqi dictator was defiant, calling Britain and the US "liars", insisting that Iraq had been given a clean bill of health by the UN weapons inspectors, and demanding that sanctions against his country should now be lifted.

The US and Britain embarked on a frantic weekend of diplomacy to seek the support they need in the Security Council for their new resolution on Iraq. The resolution, which gives President Saddam until 17 March to show conclusively that he is disarming or face the consequences, could be critical to Mr Blair's political future.

France, leading opposition to the Anglo-American initiative, is conducting its own round of lobbying. It has rejected the idea of an ultimatum to Iraq, calling instead for an emergency summit of Security Council leaders to find a compromise. This has been dismissed in turn by the US, but President Jacques Chirac's office insisted yesterday that France was gaining support.

If the British-backed second resolution wins the nine votes it needs in the Security Council, the political pressure on Mr Blair would decrease. Officially, the British Government still believes that it will pass – although it was not at all clear last night where the nine votes needed are coming from. The US government, meanwhile, has made it clear that they are ready to go to war without UN approval. The Prime Minister would then be forced to choose between supporting President Bush and antagonising a large section of the Labour Party.

The Commons is expected to be given a second chance to vote on Iraq late this week, after the Security Council has met. Without a second resolution Labour rebels predict an even bigger revolt. Last time an unprecedented 121 Labour MPs voted against their own government.

Several MPs who have supported the Government so far, including Chris Mullin, the respected chairman of the Commons Home Affairs committee, have said they will oppose British involvement in a war which was not directly sanctioned by the UN.

The crisis has caused Westminster insiders to speculate whether Tony Blair's job is on the line, for the first time since 1997. There are signs that MPs who have supported him could pay a heavy price, as they go through the ritual of applying to their constituency parties to run again as candidates at the next election.

The campaigning organisation Labour Against the War has circulated a document urging its supporters to use the selection process to "reclaim" the Labour Party by axing MPs who have backed Tony Blair. Today, the BBC's Politics Show will reveal six are at risk in the capital alone – Martin Linton, Bridget Prentice, Oona King, Barbara Roche, Jim Fitzpatrick and Ann Keen. One anti-war activist, Juliane Jung, is joining Mr Linton's Battersea Labour Party in a bid to help remove him.

Geoff Martin, an official of the public sector union Unison, said: "MPs who follow in the Government's wake, rather than standing up and joining the 121 rebels, are fair game.

"If they lose out on the selection process as a result of their attitude taken on the war, that's a good thing."

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