UK ministers in transatlantic race for unity

By Andy McSmith,Jo Dillon
Sunday 19 January 2003 01:00
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British political leaders will be criss-crossing the Atlantic for the rest of this month, trying to make sure that Western nations act in unison as the prospect of war with Iraq draws closer.

Senior government sources have told The Independent on Sunday that Tony Blair has yet to make up his mind what to do in what some in Whitehall are calling the "nightmare scenario" – in which the US goes to war without obtaining direct sanction from the United Nations Security Council. Every public utterance by the Prime Minister has left open the prospect that the UK would send troops to fight alongside the Americans, with or without UN backing.

Privately, ministers are confident that UN weapons inspectors will turn up evidence that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. They think that war could still be averted if the Iraqis back down or alternatively, that if they continue to defy world opinion, the UN will sanction a military strike and that British public opinion will fall into line.

But the public's nervousness about war is undiminished, despite the Prime Minister's tough talking. According to research carried out by Opinion Leader Research – headed by Deborah Mattinson, who worked closely with Labour's private polling unit in the run-up to three general elections – people associate the drive towards an unwanted war with Mr Blair personally.

Ms Mattinson found "no huge enthusiasm for war" among the people she spoke to last week. People were "confused" about the Government's objectives and what the endgame was. "What it boils down to is that the key to positive public opinion will be the United Nations," she said. "Moving ahead without that will raise quite a lot of serious negatives."

People also raised concerns about the relationship between Britain and the United States and between the Prime Minister and President Bush. Their close alliance was "viewed very negatively", Ms Mattinson said. "Mr Blair is taking a very great risk. At the moment this is very much seen as a Blair initiative. It is seen as him doing his international stuff." When it comes to claims that the Iraqi regime presents a threat to Britain, people don't agree. "I think people don't really perceive a threat. There is no particular enthusiasm for us getting involved and no real rationale seen for doing so," she said.

About 120 Labour MPs – nearly a third of the total – are thought to be opposed to a war which was not sanctioned by the United Nations, and there is now a prospect that Labour's national executive committee, which nominally decides party policy, could also declare its opposition to unilateral action.

Mark Seddon, editor of the left-wing newspaper, Tribune, has submitted a resolution for the executive meeting on 28 January, warning that UK involvement in a pre-emptive strike would damage the Labour Party and urging the Government to commit itself to obtaining a second UN resolution before going to war. The timing of the motion, which is expected to get backing from some of the normally loyal trade union officials on Labour's executive, would be embarrassing, because it will come the day after the chief UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix, reports on his findings in Iraq and just before Mr Blair is due to meet George Bush.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, will be in New York tomorrow for a United Nations session on combating terrorism. He is expected to make a statement in the Commons on Tuesday, then fly back across the Atlantic to meet the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, on Wednesday. Mr Blair will fly to Camp David for talks with Mr Bush on 31 January.

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