London, March 14: Cabinet divisions over Iraq widened last night after Robin Cook indicated that he was prepared to join Clare Short in resigning from the government if Britain went to war without explicit authority from the UN.
At the same time, ministers held back from authorising military action to allow time for last-ditch diplomatic efforts to reach agreement on a new UN resolution.
Cook, the leader of the Commons, and Short, the international development secretary, underlined their concerns about the legality of war without a UN mandate.
Both remain in the government until an emergency Cabinet meeting, expected on Monday, which could take the decision to commit British troops. It would be followed by a full-scale Commons debate on Tuesday.
Cook stressed the importance of MPs being allowed a vote before conflict began, and said he was prepared to ask the Speaker to recall Parliament over the weekend if necessary. He even joked about the possibility of allowing time for ministerial resignation statements.
Downing Street insisted that the Prime Minister had not yet given up hope of achieving UN backing for a second resolution — even though he told ministers yesterday that the existing resolution 1441 provided legal backing for the use of force.
“We accept getting a UN resolution is very difficult — but we don’t accept it is over,” Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spokesman said.
Blair however agreed with US President George W. Bush that the quest for another UN resolution would have to be abandoned by Tuesday at the latest. Ari Fleischer, Bush’s spokesman, said: “What you are seeing is the President going the last mile on behalf of diplomacy. There is an end to that road. The end is coming into sight.”
Washington hawks had also expressed opposition to any further delay at the UN and criticised Blair for pursuing a “fool’s chase” by searching for an agreement that was not possible.
“Blair is hurting himself by dragging this out,” a senior Bush administration member told The Daily Telegraph.