Ten years ago today, a record-breaking rebellion took place in the House of Commons. It was the largest backbench revolt, by members of any political party, on any subject since Sir Robert Peel’s administration repealed the Corn Laws in 1846, at a time when the franchise was enjoyed by just 5% of the population, and before anything which resembled today’s political parties had been formed. In other words, it was the largest rebellion since the beginning of modern British politics.
The subject was Iraq, and the rebellion involved 121 Labour MPs. It held that record for just a under a month, until the (more famous) rebellion on 18 March, when 139 Labour MPs (mostly, but not entirely, the same ones) took part in an even larger rebellion. Whereas we suspect the March rebellion – which triggered British involvement in the war – will be marked with lots of coverage, the rebellion of a month before has been almost entirely overlooked.
But the two rebellions of February 2003 – in addition to the 121 Labour MPs rebelling on an amendment, some 60 also voted against the government motion – deserve remembering. They were not the first rebellions over the issue but they formed the first real indication of the scale of opposition on the Labour benches to the Iraq war.
The debate took place on a government motion. Both the Government’s motion for discussion and the rebel amendment were carefully framed. The government motion supported UN efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein without even mentioning the possibility of war, in order to rally support from as many pro-UN and anti-war MPs. The rebel amendment – moved by the former Labour Cabinet Minister Chris Smith – was deliberately cast in such a way as to generate the maximum possible cross-party support, not just from those opposed to war outright, but also from those in the ‘not yet’ camp; it argued that the case for military action against Iraq was ‘as yet unproven’.
Smith’s amendment was defeated by 393 votes to 199. The Government motion backing UN efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein was then carried by 434 votes to 124.
There was a gasp of disbelief in the Chamber when the result was announced. It was not that the vote was particularly close – the support of the Conservative frontbench meant that the Government won both votes easily – but the size of the Labour rebellion stunned many observers.
In addition to the 121 who voted against the government, just over 20 Labour MPs abstained. Most absented themselves or by ostentatiously remained seated in the chamber during the vote. Andy Reed, the MP for Loughborough, had voted in both lobbies in order to register his abstention. Reed was a Parliamentary Private Secretary and was expected to back the government in the division lobbies. Normally he would have been sacked immediately. It was a sign of the difficulties that the Government were in that he was allowed to remain in post for a few days, before he resigned.
The previous weekend the Chief Whip had warned the Prime Minister that the rebellion over Smith’s amendment could involve as many as 100 Labour MPs. But armed with the amendment, it had taken Peter Kilfoyle, a former Defence Minister, just an hour to gather sixty signatures in support of it. By the Tuesday morning, the day before the vote, more than 116 Labour backbenchers had already signed it, with every indication that the numbers could rise yet further. But up until lunchtime on the day of the vote the Labour whips were still expecting 145 Labour MPs to back Smith’s amendment, and were pleased at having contained it as well as they had done.
The Iraq rebellions – both those in February and those in March – were key moments in the history of the Blair government. Despite their record-breaking size, the real damage caused by Iraq lay not in the numbers. The problem came in the effect that the issue had on the Parliamentary Labour Party. Immediately following March’s record-breaking rebellion, one whip was definite: ‘Once CNN start beaming up the pictures of Saddam’s torture chambers and the stockpiles of chemical weapons that he claims he does not have, you won’t be able to find anyone who remembers voting against Tony Blair’.
Although the torture chambers and mass graves were found, the stockpiles never appeared – and it was because of the stockpiles that many in the Parliamentary Labour Party thought they had voted for war. For some, those who had already been critics of the government before, this was the factor that destroyed their already weakened faith in the Government’s judgement and direction. For others – especially those who had stuck to the party line, in many cases against their better judgement, because they had put their faith in Tony Blair and his arguments – this was a defining moment. They felt let down, betrayed even, by what had happened. As one concerned minister put it immediately after March’s rebellion:
We’re not only facing the danger that Iraq will give some MPs a rebellion habit, it’s also that they are not giving us the benefit of the doubt any more. People are asking us questions about where quite ordinary policies are going as if we have a hidden agenda.
Just as with much of the electorate outside the Palace of Westminster, so too inside: Iraq was the moment when many Labour MPs stopped trusting Tony Blair.
Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart