Revolt of the Backbenchers


By Andrew Grice and Ben Russell

February 27, 2003

The crucial vote on the amendment
For: 199 (including 121 Labour MPs
Against: 393
The Motion
"That this House take note of command paper Cm 5769 on Iraq; reaffirms its endorsement of UN Security Council resolution 1441, as expressed in its resolution of 25 November 2002; supports the Government's continuing efforts in the UN to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction ..."
The Amendment
[add to the above] "...but finds the case for military action against Iraq [is] as yet unproven"

Tony Blair suffered the biggest backbench rebellion since he became Prime Minister last night when 121 Labour MPs voted against an immediate war in Iraq. After a highly charged six-hour Commons debate dominated by anti-war speeches, 199 of the 659 MPs voted in favour of a cross-party amendment, saying the case for war was "as yet unproven".

A bruised and embarrassed Mr Blair won the vote with 393 votes including most Tory MPs but still suffered what is believed to be the biggest revolt by MPs from a governing party in Britain. A packed Commons then approved a government motion calling on Iraq to recognise it now had a "final opportunity" to disarm, by 434 votes to 124. Fifty-nine Labour MPs voted against the Government.

The rebellion was bigger than expected, stretching well beyond the 30 or 40 hardline anti-war Labour MPs. The Labour doubters were joined by 13 Tories, 52 Liberal Democrats and 13 MPs from minority parties. The rebels demanded that Mr Blair halt the drive towards war. Graham Allen, one of the organisers of the revolt, said: "This is a very clear message to the Prime Minister to listen to Parliament and respect the view of the British people that we should get off George Bush's escalator to war." Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said Mr Blair had failed to persuade almost a third of all MPs. "That sends a potent signal to the governments of both Britain and the United States," he said.

But Downing Street signalled that Mr Blair's policy on Iraq would not change. One Blairite cabinet minister said: "We will take this into account, but it won't change anything. We have to do what has to be done." Another minister attempted to put a positive gloss on the vote by suggesting it could even help Mr Blair. "This will strengthen Tony's hand with the Americans. They now know we've got to get a second resolution," he said. Previously, the biggest revolt of Mr Blair's premiership came when 67 Labour MPs voted against cuts to disability benefits in 1999.

Despite a pledge by the Prime Minister that last night's vote was not a decision on a war, many MPs saw the debate as a final chance to register their grave concern. Thevote was much bigger than two recent rebellions over Iraq, in which 41 and 32 Labour MPs voted against the Government, and is a sign that opposition to military action is growing. Rebels defied strong-arm tactics by government whips. They claimed MPs had been told that signing the cross-party amendment would not be a "hanging offence" but that the Prime Minister would "take personally" a vote against his policy.

The impassioned debate also exposed sharp divisions in Tory ranks. Five opposition frontbenchers were said to be unhappy with Iain Duncan Smith's hawkish line. Tories who spoke against a war included the former cabinet ministers Kenneth Clarke, John Gummer and Douglas Hogg, but Michael Portillo expressed strong support for Mr Blair.

The Government will now redouble its efforts to secure a fresh United Nations resolution on Iraq in an attempt to allay MPs' fears. The UN Security Council will meet today amid fierce diplomatic arm-twisting from Britain and America, which are seeking a majority vote that would pave the way for military action to oust Saddam Hussein. But the anti-war camp, led by France, is also engaged in frantic diplomacy to court the six "swing" voters on the Council: Chile, Mexico, Guinea, Cameroon, Pakistan and Angola.

Britain and America need nine votes and no vetoes to pass their resolution. To date, they can rely only on the votes of Spain and Bulgaria. As of last night, Mexico appeared to be swinging in favour. But veto-holding Russia and France remained categorically opposed to a second resolution. Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, said yesterday that Iraq had still not taken the "fundamental decision" to disarm.

Anti-war MPs accused Mr Blair of "moving the goalposts" after he hinted that he would join America in military action if the Security Council refused to pass a fresh resolution. Asked by Mr Duncan Smith yesterday whether any veto would be unreasonable, Mr Blair replied: "It certainly would be an unreasonable veto if Iraq is in material breach and we don't pass a resolution, because resolution 1441 made it absolutely clear that Iraq had a final opportunity to comply."

Mr Blair was warned that he would face an even bigger rebellion if Britain failed to win a new UN resolution. The Prime Minister said he was "working flat out" to secure a new mandate. Opening the Commons debate, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, spoke of the "awesome responsibility" of taking life-or-death decisions and said: "This is the hardest issue I have ever had to deal with." His speech was constantly interrupted by Labour MPs. The loudest approval from the Labour benches came when he outlined the arguments against war before going on to try to demolish them.

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