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 Wednesday, 15 January, 2003, 18:24 GMT
Who's pressing Blair against war
If Tony Blair commits the UK to war with Iraq, he risks alienating many of his own backbenchers, his party, even ministers in his cabinet - not to mention voters.

BBC News Online political correspondent Nyta Mann charts the hazards on his road to war.

Round the cabinet table there is no lack of doubters on Tony Blair's commitment to war with Iraq if the US deems Saddam Hussein to have failed to disarm.

International Development Secretary Clare Short has been the most vocal in insisting Mr Blair should "not divert from the UN route" and must resist joining any unilateral military action by the US.

Leader of the House Robin Cook is understood to be a fellow leading cabinet sceptic, while conflicting messages from Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (the former publicly repudiated the latter for downgrading the chances of war to "60-40") have added to the impression of a government at odds with itself.

Meanwhile, it took Chancellor Gordon Brown until this week to break a long silence (a fact not unremarked on by Blairites) and throw his public backing behind Mr Blair's approach to Iraq.

Regardless of Mr Blair's exhortations, public opinion has remained stubbornly sceptical about the need for war with Iraq.

Polls have consistently shown voters unconvinced that the threat from Saddam is great enough to justify war.

They are also suspicious of US President George Bush, with many unhappy that Mr Blair may be acting as the US president's "poodle".

Moreover, a Yougov poll this week showed that most people believe that any war would be about oil.

When he addressed the weekly meeting of Labour MPs on Wednesday, Mr Blair focussed on the domestic agenda - but faced a barrage of sharp questions on Iraq.

There is deep unease among backbenchers and it is far from confined to any "usual suspect" awkward squad members.

Former ministers Peter Kilfoyle, Doug Henderson and Glenda Jackson - no pacifist left-wingers they - are among those at the forefront of backbench concern at what they see as an inexorable rush to war.

More than 130 Labour MPs have signed the Commons motion against unilateral US action against Saddam, and for months now suspicion has been rife that British troops will be sent into action before MPs are given the chance to debate or vote on the issue.

Labour Party general secretary David Triesman concedes that Labour's policy of firm support for the 1990-91 Gulf war set off the greatest wave of membership resignations than any other single issue in recent years. Party managers expect a new war with Iraq may do the same.

Officials and MPs across the country report trenchant criticism from their constituency parties, and are braced for tumult in the event of war.

With activist apathy and disenchantment having already taken their toll at grassroots level, and a set of difficult local, Scottish and Welsh elections coming up in May, some MPs fear the noise of British fighter jets taking off for Iraq will be drowned out by the sound of membership cards being torn up.

"Closer to Bush than thou" is how one shadow minister describes Iain Duncan Smith's strategy towards the prime minister's Iraq policy, as the Tory leader has seized on evidence of lukewarm attitudes towards President Bush from government doves.

The Tories are themselves split on Iraq, though not as badly as Labour. Split enough, nonetheless, for party whips to have ordered MPs not to take part in surveys by the media as to Conservative policy on war with Iraq.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, meanwhile, finds himself in the crucial role of dissonant voice in the mainstream as the only main political party leader questioning the seemingly unstoppable march to war.

With the prime minister and leader of the opposition shoulder to shoulder on the issue, Mr Kennedy has maintained his own consistently tough line on the need for prior UN sanction ahead of any military action - in effect speaking for MPs across the House, not just on the Lib Dem benches.

Uncomfortably for one of the most openly religious prime ministers of the post-World War II era, Mr Blair faces widespread opposition to war from church leaders.

Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury (self-described "hairy lefty"), was early to voice his deep doubts as to the wisdom of military action. He has stuck firmly and confidently to that line, and been arguably more effective in voicing and mobilising opposition than has the nascent anti-war movement.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, leader of the Catholic church in England and Wales, has made clear his disquiet over Mr Blair's line on war with Saddam - as have Church of England bishops, the Pope and other religious leaders.

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  The BBC's Laura Trevelyan
"His critics might be in the minority but there's no silencing them"

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15 Jan 03 | Politics
15 Jan 03 | Middle East
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