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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 18 March, 2003, 23:27 GMT
Blair's close shave

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

It is a grim reflection of the nightmare threatening to engulf Tony Blair that he will be relieved at the outcome of the Commons vote sanctioning war on Saddam Hussein.

For, while the prime minister won the day in Parliament, he has failed clearly to win the argument with his own MPs, the country and much of the rest of the world.

And he only escaped by the skin of his teeth the humiliation of relying on Tory votes for his victory in the Commons.

Tony Blair
Blair gave one of his best Commons performances
But after the most important and risky debate of his entire premiership, he failed to command the support of the majority of his own backbenchers.

Now the prime minister, while clearly wounded by this historic rebellion, will claim he has the overall support of the Commons for his actions.

It is a far from satisfactory outcome for Mr Blair, who for months remained confident it would not come to this.

Party dismayed?

And it will leave a large section of his party deeply dismayed that their leader is taking them to war against this background.

Mr Blair's leadership has never been so uncertain as it now is.

After the absolute failure of diplomacy, he is taking the one option he prayed he would never have to face.

He is taking action against the will of the UN, the British public, his party and a large swathe of global opinion.

His future now hangs absolutely on the conduct and outcome of the war which will kick off, most probably, within the next 24 hours or so.

Risking all?

Mr Blair knew this was not only his last shot at persuasion, but the most important Commons speech he has ever made.

He previously told the Commons he was risking "everything" on his policy towards Iraq.

And in the heat of this debate he suggested that, if he lost the day, he would resign.

Setting out the consequences of failing to back action against Saddam, he declared: "I will not be party to such a course."

He knew full well it would never come to resignation because he was guaranteed victory.

What he intended was to hammer home to his own side just how serious this issue was.

And there was the underlying suggestion that this was not a simple matter of backing or opposing government policy but, in effect, a vote of confidence in his own leadership.

Top performance

Not even his fiercest critics had been prepared to claim that for the vote.

And the prime minister certainly gave it all he has got, as if his job really did depend on it.

Despite now being clearly drained by the past few months' frantic activity and pressure, he rose to the occasion and gave one of his best Commons performances.

He set out the dangers he perceives to the world from ignoring Saddam and what he sees as the inevitable linking of terrorist groups and suppliers of weapons of mass destruction.

He warned of the dangers to the UN of inaction and he expressed his fear that some wanted to see a new world order with the US and Europe facing each other as rivals rather than allies.

He bitterly attacked French President Jacques Chirac for pledging to veto a second resolution under any circumstances.

And he pleaded for the world to liberate the people of Iraq from Saddam's brutal regime.

At the end of the day, however, the rebellion was actually larger than last month's historic revolt.

The BBC's Mark Mardell
"Tony Blair made a speech of power and passion"

Iraq crisis hour-by-hour
18 Mar 03 |  Middle East

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