The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Quit cloud looms over Blair Cabinet

London, March 9: British Prime Minister Tony Blair battled today to win world support for his tough stand on disarming Baghdad, as a resignation and mounting rebellion in his Labour government raised the stakes of his Iraq gamble.

Blair looked increasingly out on a limb as a Labour Party MP announced his resignation over Iraq, amid reports that four more could quit and some 200 party lawmakers could rebel if Britain waged war without UN backing.

Britain has already committed itself to military action by March 17 should Saddam fail to disarm and is attempting to secure UN backing for this deadline. However, the aides, all parliamentary private secretaries (PPSs), say they will resign if the Security Council does not back the British position.

Andrew Reed, PPS to environment minister Margaret Beckett, today said he would quit. “I fully support Prime Minister Tony Blair in his attempts to find a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis through the UN route and do not want to do anything that undermines that effort at this stage,” he added.

Three other MPs — Anne Campbell, PPS to trade secretary Patricia Hewitt, Michael Jabez Foster, PPS to attorney general Lord Goldsmith and Tony Wright, PPS to treasury minister Ruth Kelly — have indicated they would step down if action was taken without UN backing.

“There is a point where you have to decide whether this is right or wrong. This is about upholding the authority of the UN,” Foster said. “I have taken the view that I would find it very difficult to support the government unless there is a proper UN resolution. If it came to war without that, I would have to quit,” Campbell added.

The fact that members of the government are prepared to threaten Blair publicly will fuel concerns that senior figures, possibly Cabinet ministers, may also resign in protest. Speculation continues to surround the position of Robin Cook, the Leader of the Commons, who is considered the most likely of any Cabinet member to quit over the issue.

The resignation threats follow the unprecedented Commons revolt, in which 121 Labour MPs voted against the government two weeks ago. If followed through, they would be the most serious blow to Blair’s authority since he was elected and could split the government from top to bottom. They highlight the risk that the Prime Minister is taking in backing President George W. Bush in waging war on Iraq regardless of the outcome of this week’s crucial UN Security Council vote in New York.

London and Washington have refused to rule out the possibility that war could be launched this week — possibly as early as Wednesday — if they fail to win support for a second resolution. A British minister said: “There is a chance of that. We are going nowhere in New York.”

In a last-ditch attempt to avoid war, Britain and America will this week offer Saddam Hussein a final chance to flee Iraq. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The resolution has been put down but the option is there for Saddam to go into exile. It would mean we would have what we want.”

Diplomats at the UN confirmed that the US and Britain were seeking to link the resolution setting Saddam Hussein the March 17 deadline with a declaration — possibly by the Arab League — calling on the Iraqi leader to avert war by going into exile. Saudi Arabia has led efforts by Arab countries to persuade Saddam and his entourage to accept asylum and exemption from charges of war crimes. Saddam, however, has until now rejected the offers, saying that he would die in Iraq.

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