Page last updated at 10:09 GMT, Thursday, 15 March 2007

Blair questions after rebellion

Trident protest outside Faslane naval base
The government said a decision on Trident must be taken now

Tony Blair's authority has been questioned after his plans to renew the UK's nuclear weapons system sparked the biggest Commons revolt since Iraq.

The government won Commons support for renewing Trident, despite 95 Labour MPs voting for the decision to be delayed.

Baroness Betty Boothroyd said the backbench rebellion showed Mr Blair had become a "lame duck" prime minister.

But party chairwoman Hazel Blears said any Labour leader would have met the same response on such a divisive issue.

She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The issue of nuclear weapons has always been an incredibly emotional decision in the Labour Party, but even on this issue, a majority of Labour backbenchers did support this decision."

Vanguard submarine
Missile length: 44ft (13m)
Weight: 130,000lb (58,500kg)
Diameter: 74 inches (1.9m)
Range: More than 4,600 miles (7,400km)
Power plant: Three stage solid propellant rocket
Cost: 16.8m ($29.1m) per missile
Source: Federation of American Scientists

She added: "I think any Labour leader would have found themselves in exactly the same position, Tony Blair or whoever else."

She said that Chancellor Gordon Brown, who is widely expected to succeed Mr Blair when he stands down as prime minister later this year, also supported the renewal of the Trident submarines.

The plans were supported by 409 MPs and 161 were against - a majority of 248. The government needed Conservative support to push the measure through.

Earlier 413 MPs rejected a bid to delay the decision, with 167 MPs - including 95 from Labour - wanting a delay.

Baroness Boothroyd, the former Labour MP and speaker of the House of Commons, was asked about the issue on BBC 2's Newsnight.

'Losing authority'

She said: "I don't think that any prime minister wants to get some major issue like that on opposition votes, but he had no alternative but to rely on those votes."

She added: "He's losing authority and he's now becoming a lame duck, I'm sorry to say."

Few issues can divide Labour so instantly or comprehensively as this one
BBC's Nick Assinder

Rebels included 16 former ministers, including four ex-Cabinet members.

On the government's motion to proceed with renewal there were 88 Labour rebels.

It was the first time MPs had been given the chance to vote on whether Britain should remain a nuclear power.

Protesters cheered

Several hundred demonstrators gathered outside Parliament, and cheered when they heard the scale of the rebellion.

Between 15bn and 20bn is due to be spent on new submarines to carry the Trident missiles. The fleet would take 17 years to develop and build, and would then last until about 2050.

We should not waste billions renewing Trident
George, Malvern

Tony Blair argued that it was "essential for our security in an uncertain world" that the UK began the plan to renew Trident as soon as possible.

Conservative defence spokesman Liam Fox said the plan was a "sound, sensible" policy that would ensure the UK would not be subject to "nuclear blackmail" from other states.

But Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell, who voted for a decision to be delayed, said the vote was "a humiliation for the prime minister".

Mr Blair said that was always a possibility that Parliament would be able to revisit the Trident issue in the future.

Back in December he told Parliament that submarine numbers could be cut from four to three, while the number of nuclear warheads would be cut by 20% to below 160.

Deputy Commons leader Nigel Griffiths and ministerial aide Jim Devine quit earlier this week over the issue.

Stephen Pound - parliamentary private secretary to Labour chairman Hazel Blears - did the same on Wednesday, followed by Chris Ruane, parliamentary private secretary to Mr Hain.

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