Angry MPs set Blair a deadline to find weapons

Even the PM's loyalists are growing more uneasy every day about the 'missing' arms, says Jo Dillon

13 July 2003

Growing anger among formerly loyal MPs means that Tony Blair has until the autumn to uncover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or face serious calls from his own colleagues to stand down as Prime Minister.

Many Labour MPs are beginning to feel they were duped into supporting the war by intelligence highlighting the imminent threat of Saddam Hussein's alleged WMD - evidence of which has yet to emerge. Frustration and anger among backbenchers who rebelled against Mr Blair's war plan has been constant since they defied him in a Commons vote in March.

But it is now more acutely felt by those other MPs who were persuaded to back him against their initial judgement. Brian Donohoe, Labour MP for Cunninghame South, who reluctantly abstained in the March vote, told The Independent on Sunday that the Prime Minister's position would be "untenable" in the event that WMD were not found.

Mr Donohoe said: "The Government has got to start setting deadlines. The fact is we have now been at war and are out the other side of it. Between now and the next recall of Parliament is the timescale that people should be working on." Other Labour MPs who were pulled back from joining the rebellion are unwilling to put their names to dissent at this stage but share Mr Donohoe's anger, and his belief that Mr Blair's credibility rests on his ability to find WMD.

One, an otherwise loyal Blairite, said: "It is getting worse every day, with everything that you hear coming out of the mouths of our Government and the Americans. I would be happier now had I voted against the war. We were told they had this massive capability and they were ready to use it in 45 minutes - but the weapons are just not there. Many of us feel very uncomfortable about having gone to war on that basis now."

Another Labour backbencher who was persuaded to change his mind said: "There was one primary reason why I changed my vote and it was because I didn't want to bring Blair down. I am now concerned he is doing that himself with the row with the BBC and the fact that it is beginning to look as if there are no weapons of mass destruction."

The MP predicted that Mr Blair would really start to feel the heat from his own backbenches when MPs return to Westminster after the summer recess, if not at the Labour Party's annual conference in Bournemouth. Another Labour MP, again who switched his vote in order to "save the Prime Minister", said there was now "immense anger" among backbenchers. "It is going to be very difficult to shake off."

The Government's tactic, to date, has been to continue to insist publicly that WMD will be found. MPs are dismayed, however, at discrepancies between public statements as to whether "concrete" WMD evidence will be unearthed or just evidence of weapons programmes.

Equally, there are concerns that senior Whitehall sources have been briefing behind the scenes that they do not expect to find the weapons at all. "This is all extremely disappointing," said one Labour MP. "We were led up the garden path. But this has stripped off the gloss that was left and exposed [Blair]."

Another, who voted for the war against his better judgement, said: "Had we known then what we know now I would have thought he would have lost the majority in the Commons. I don't think there would be a majority if we knew there were almost certainly no weapons of mass destruction on the ground and some evidence had been presented in a way that was maximising the case for war."

The voices of those previously loyal MPs will be added this autumn to those already livid with the Prime Minister over Iraq. For them, the WMD issue is inextricably tied to Mr Blair's credibility as Prime Minister.

One former minister said: "Tony Blair has committed himself very personally to the view that there are weapons of mass destruction and they will be found. He has set himself a very tough standard and to an extent he will be judged on that. If [he] was acting honestly on advice from security services we have to ask the question of the competence of the security services. If weapons are going to be found they had better get on with it, otherwise questions of trust and competence will continue to bedevil the Prime Minister and the security services."

'IoS' panel

'His credibility is low'

At the beginning of March, the Prime Minister answered questions posed by a selection of 'Independent on Sunday' readers. Hundreds wrote in with their concerns. We selected a representative group of questioners, above, who put their points to Tony Blair, to which he replied fully and in detail. They remain unconvinced.

Mike Wilmott, 42, from Wiltshire, feels deceived by Tony Blair's claims on WMD. "If he can't tell the truth on big things like this, how can we trust him on smaller things? Blair's credibility is running very low right now."

Judy Moore, 49, from Norwich, believes it was clear "that the regime needed to end for the sake of the Iraqi people" but that "we're in danger of losing sight of what needs to be done there right now".

Dr John Holder, 52, from London, is sceptical about the occupation's future and believes Mr Blair should resign. "He led this country into war on false pretences. Iraq is a total mess now." As for WMD as justification of the war, "that 45 minute claim really persuaded the vast majority of this country."

Ann Keith, 62, from Grantchester, is so disillusioned by the politicians that she does not think she will vote again. "I think they're just casting around for any excuse now. 'WMD programmes' just seems a bit pathetic." She also feels Blair should resign.

Helen O'Sullivan, 35, from Hertfordshire, is, "very angry that Tony Blair misled the British population on WMD, especially as it was one of the main reasons for going to war and we were told that Iraq was an immediate threat to us". She believes Tony Blair should resign if it is proved he lied, "as this is an extremely serious issue and many innocent lives were lost. I definitely won't be voting Labour again".

Lauren Ober and Nick Smyth

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