International Papers

Britain Resigned to War

“Resignation” was the word of the day in the British press Tuesday as three Cabinet ministers left the Labor government, one prominent dissenter decided to stay, and Prime Minister Tony Blair threatened to quit unless the House of Commons approved Britain’s participation in the Iraq war. After a 10-hour Commons debate, the vote went the prime minister’s way by a comfortable margin, but with 139 of Labor’s 410 MPs voting against the government, Blair endured the biggest backbench rebellion in British parliamentary history. As the Times observed, Blair goes to war “with a third of his parliamentary party against him.” Still, as the Guardian’s sketch writer noted, it was “[n]ot a great result but a good one, a more than tolerable one for the prime minister, at the end of the most important debate MPs have held since the last great war.”

Blair’s reviews were rapturous. The Guardian said, “[H]e was roaring, alive, quivering with ferocious tension, like a sub-lieutenant about to lead a battalion into battle. He might have been sitting in one of those electric baths Margaret Thatcher used to recharge herself when her battery acid ran low.” The Independent agreed: “Tony Blair’s capacities as a performer and an advocate have never been in doubt. But this was something much more. … [T]his was the most persuasive case yet made by the man who has emerged as the most formidable persuader for war on either side of the Atlantic.” For the Times, “[D]espite the numbers among his own ranks whom he had failed to convince, the Prime Minister was in complete command of the chamber.”

Although Blair never used the “R-word,” early in his 50-minute speech to parliament he said that if Britain were to withdraw its support for military action, it would “put at hazard all we hold dearest. … I will not be party to such a course.” Others were less reticent. On Monday evening, Robin Cook, the leader of the House of Commons and a former foreign secretary, resigned from the government over Blair’s Iraq policy and received an “unprecedented standing ovation” from his parliamentary colleagues. On Tuesday, Cook was joined by two junior ministers and four parliamentary private secretaries, unpaid but career-building positions described by the Guardian as “ministerial ‘bag carriers.’ “

Judging from the editorials, Britons love a quitter. Robin Cook has rarely received such plaudits as he got for his “principled” resignation. For the Daily Telegraph’s political editor, Cook was “the first casualty of war.” The Guardian said he “resigned not to boost his career … but because he correctly felt that the government had failed in its Iraq policy,” while the Times agreed he was “sacrificing his political future for his principles.” The Daily Mirror also praised him for resigning “on a point of genuine political principle—leaving the rest of his colleagues saying nothing to protect their fat salaries and chauffeur-driven cars.” (The perks of Cook’s Cabinet position included an official home, car service, and an extra $110,000 per year.) The Scotsman paid the departing minister a backhanded compliment: “Robin Cook is widely regarded as having a ferocious intellect and yesterday he was smart enough to jump before he was pushed. His career was in a tailspin, never having fully recovered from the demotion from Foreign Secretary to Leader of the House of Commons [in June 2001].” Still, the paper said, “his final moment was one of his finest. Mr Cook’s timing may have caused cynics to raise an eyebrow, but his decision to sacrifice his job on a point of principle also surprised colleagues who knew very well why he had attracted a reputation for revelling in the trappings of office.”

In contrast, Clare Short was roundly abused for her decision to stay in office. Short made headlines 10 days ago when she repeatedly referred to the Bush/Blair Iraq strategy as “reckless” and threatened to resign her position as minister for international development unless there was a second U.N. resolution. According to the Independent, her failure to follow through leaves her credibility “irrevocably damaged.” A Guardian commentator sarcastically observed: “Ms Short described her decision to keep her cabinet seat, ministerial salary and chauffeur-driven limousine as the ‘most difficult of her life.’ Hmm, I’m not so sure. … [T]o me, her decision stinks of egotism.” The Daily Telegraph concluded, “Mr Cook has sacrificed office for reputation; Miss Short has done the opposite.”

Blogging the debate:Guardian political correspondent Matthew Tempest did sterling work providing real-time coverage of the Commons emergency debate. Tempest posted his first observations shortly after the prime minister began his speech at 12:35 p.m. and kept on blogging right through to the 10 o’clock vote. Although British sketch writing is traditionally informal (and often hilarious), it’s doubtful that such lines as “Mr Kennedy picks his nose and turns red” would make it into a piece of less than 5,000 words, but it was a wonderful service, nevertheless.