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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 26 February, 2003, 19:44 GMT
Blair's bloody nose

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Tony Blair was braced for the biggest rebellion of his premiership - and he got it in spades.

After failing to win over his anti-war critics, the prime minister watched as a packed-to-bursting Commons delivered its verdict on his policy towards Saddam Hussein.

He won the day, of course, but saw the rebels racking up a far bigger vote against him than most had predicted.

He knew he could count on the support of most of the Tories and 140 of his ministers who would have faced the sack had they failed to back him.

It was a passionate, sometimes bitter but always honest debate about the rights and wrongs of the government's handling of Saddam Hussein.

But the fact is, it will make absolutely no difference to Tony Blair's plans.

He will still seek a second UN resolution sanctioning action against Iraq and, if he gets it, will breathe a huge sigh of relief.

It won't quite be a case of 'with one bound he was free' - but close.

If he fails to get that second motion, he will still stand alongside President Bush when he attacks Iraq. And the long term consequences could be massive.

Arm twisting

What was clear almost from the start of the debate was that minds were pretty much already made up.

Tony Blair was not about to be swayed by his rebels and they, frankly, did not trust his reassurances.

Indeed, in the days and hours before the vote, positions appeared to actually harden.

All the usual coercing, arm twisting, pleading and downright threatening had taken place in the run up to the vote.

The rebels were told they, not the government, were the ones undermining the UN. Some were even told Saddam Hussein would be delighted by their actions.

And they were told numerous times this was not their final word. They would be given a vote on military action.

Trouble is they probably did not believe that promise. They fear the attack on Iraq will be launched before they get a chance to vote on it.

It was hardball by the government but, if anything, it may have backfired, stiffening the rebellious resolve of some backbenchers.

And this was not a simple case of the usual suspects. Former minister like Chris Smith and opposition heavyweights like Kenneth Clarke - defying his own leader - cannot be dismissed lightly.

Trust him

The bottom line is that the prime minister and his US allies have failed to convince a large section of the public, the House of Commons and the Labour party that there is enough evidence against Saddam to warrant war.

Saddam Hussein
Saddam will be disarmed
And all the prime minister's suggestions they should trust him because he knows more than he can reveal have fallen flat.

This all goes to show that after six years, this is no longer a government that can automatically rely on the unquestioning trust of voters and its MPs.

In some ways, thanks to the clear and widening split within the UN, things have got worse.

The prime minister is no longer expressing his confidence that he will win his second resolution sanctioning action. He now talks merely about that being his "hope".

And he appears to have dropped his previous assertion that he would only go to war without a second resolution in the narrow circumstances of an unreasonable veto inside the UN.

Downing Street's line now is that we will have to "wait and see" how the member states line up.

Thatcher factor

So, will Tony Blair take account of the Commons and will the anti-war revolt stop him in his tracks, or even cause him to pause?

The most realistic rebels think the answer is a clear "no". And that will have long term consequences for the prime minister.

In the short term, if he finally wins his second UN resolution, he believes things will suddenly swing his way and much of the opposition will evaporate.

More will probably go once war is actually underway and British troops are laying their lives on the line.

But this entire episode will have left a legacy which could easily see Tony Blair further, and possibly even fatally, isolated from his own party.

He probably believes that, once war is over he will attract the post-Falklands Thatcher factor and be seen as a conquering hero who has proved to have been right all along.

If that is the outcome, his premiership will have become even more of a presidency.


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