Backlash against war

London ready for huge protest as opposition grows

DOZENS of Labour MPs are expected to join a large anti-war demonstration on Saturday amid mounting evidence that the impending war on Iraq is provoking a backlash among the Government’s own supporters.

Up to 40 backbenchers are expected to take part in a protest that is likely to be the largest of its kind in the capital in recent years.

All police leave has been cancelled after senior Scotland Yard officers predicted that up to 500,000 people will head for Hyde Park to demonstrate against war.

Tony Blair’s decision to set out the moral case for war in the Commons yesterday is understood to have been an indication of his growing concern at the scale of opposition.

Most troubling for the Government, however, are signs that significant numbers of protesters will be drawn from the ranks of its traditional supporters on the Left, and from the voters of “middle England” who helped to bring Labour to power.

Members of the Women’s Institute, pupils at Eton, Gulf War veterans and at least one Church of England bishop will take part.

The growing evidence of a massive groundswell of anti-war sentiment comes after an opinion poll commissioned for The Times showed Labour’s support falling to its lowest level for a decade because of Tony Blair’s willingness to back military action against President Saddam Hussein.

The poll results, published on Tuesday, also showed that 86 per cent of voters believe that United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq should be given more time.

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, made it clear yesterday that he would attend the march to protest against the possible bypassing of the UN, and was not opposed to war in all circumstances. In an e-mail to party members, he wrote: “The Liberal Democrats remain the positively pro-UN party. We are not the all-out anti-war party. I believe that the United Nations is the proper place to make the decisions.

Many Labour MPs, including the former ministers Chris Smith, Tony Banks, Glenda Jackson and Peter Kilfoyle, put their names to a Commons motion opposing the war yesterday.

They demanded that British troops should not participate unless there was evidence that Iraq posed an imminent threat to peace, a Commons motion authorising action and a second UN Security Council resolution.

There are even signs that a handful of left-wing Labour MPs are planning to support a campaign to raise funds for a future “war crimes” case against senior government figures. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament joined Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North, at a press conference to launch its White Ribbons for Peace campaign yesterday. Money from the sale of the ribbons will finance an attempt to bring a prosecution at the International Criminal Court.

The peace marchers will be joined by the Bishop of Worcester, the Right Rev Peter Selby. The Bishop of Birmingham, the Right Rev John Sentamu, is organising a public protest in the city to coincide with the London demonstration.

Divisions surfaced between Church of England leaders yesterday, however, with the Bishop of Rochester, the Right Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, arguing that America and Britain could be justified in attacking Iraq without UN backing.

In an interview published in The Church of England Newspaper tomorrow, Dr Nazir-Ali will say: “While we pray and work for peace, we need to recognise that the Iraqi regime may have to be disarmed by force to make that peace possible.”

The march is being organised by the Stop the War Coalition, an organisation formed ten days after the September 11 attacks, along with the CND and the Muslim Association of Britain.

Andrew Murray, its chairman, said: “The original purpose was to oppose the war in Afghanistan. Now it has broadened out considerably and takes in all shades of opinion in Britain.”