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Wednesday, 10 April, 2002, 15:56 GMT 16:56 UK
Blair tactics backfire over Iraq
Prime Minister Tony Blair meeting US President George Bush in Texas
Blair is seen by some Labour MPs as too close to Bush
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By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

If Tony Blair really believed he could see off his backbench rebels over this threat to bomb Saddam Hussein from power, then he was badly mistaken.

On his first day back at the Commons since the Easter break, he was given the clearest possible sign yet that his MPs - and even some of his ministers - are still determined to go to the wire over this issue.

Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith
Duncan Smith: Clever tactic
First, he was subjected to a polite but highly-critical grilling by his own MPs at one of the most packed meetings of the Parliamentary Labour Party for years.

He attempted to keep the subject on domestic issues and to defuse some of the anger by giving MPs a full debate on the Middle East next Tuesday.

He also tried to calm anxieties by insisting that action against Iraq was not imminent and any future moves would be "calm and sensible."

And he also pointed out that other action in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan had proved successful.

Hostile questions

But the tactic backfired. He was forced to listen to a number of speeches which barely disguised some MPs' belief he is little more than US President George Bush's lap dog.

Former minister Peter Kilfoyle
Peter Kilfoyle's anger was evident
And the overwhelming majority of his rebels later claimed their views had not been changed one jot as a result of his speech.

To underline the point, some of them went on to subject him to a series of hostile questions in the full glare of Commons question time less than three hours later.

Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith - who agrees Saddam should be tackled by military means, if necessary - craftily used his first three questions to force the prime minister to repeat his policy on military action.

It was a clever move designed to further whip up Labour MPs' anger at their leader. And it worked.

The prime minister recognised he had been outmanoeuvred, declaring sarcastically: "I am sure he wants to be helpful."

Double standards

The trick allowed the backbenchers to launch their assault in what was the most critical question time since the revolt over single parent benefit cuts half way through the last parliament.

Even many of his natural supporters believe he should be spending more time on the domestic agenda

The anger of former minister Peter Kilfoyle, who believes he is one of those being branded "naive" by the prime minister, was almost palpable.

So was that of John Owen Jones, who suggested the prime minister was displaying double standards over Iraq when compared to Israel.

It was a painful time for Mr Blair, who clearly believes he is on the right side on this issue and patently does not understand the views of his detractors.

Indeed he regularly appears to dismiss many of them as people who will oppose action against Iraq irrespective of what Saddam Hussein does and who opposed the Gulf war a decade ago.

Major crisis

But that may have led him to miscalculate the nature of the rebellion, which has real potential to split the Labour party and which, for many, is a matter of principle.

Even many of his natural supporters believe he should be spending more time on the domestic agenda - sorting out the public services - than getting involved in war-planning with a Republican president.

Military action against Saddam may not be taken for a year or so, if at all, but it is an issue that will continue to batter the prime minister.

He believes that, during that period, he will be able to win over enough of his own critics to avert a major crisis.

At the moment that is far from a certainty.

See also:

10 Apr 02 | UK Politics
Blair faces MPs' anger over Iraq
10 Apr 02 | UK Politics
Puzzled PM faces his critics
08 Apr 02 | UK Politics
Blair ready to take on critics
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