LONDON - Shaken by the resignations of three government ministers, Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged his political future yesterday on Britain's joining the United States in forcibly disarming Saddam Hussein and survived a rebellion by members of his Labor Party.
"Tell our allies that at the very moment of action, at the very moment when they need our determination, that Britain faltered?" he asked the House of Commons, his voice rising and his finger stabbing at the air at the beginning of a daylong debate. "I will not be party to such a course."
Blair was facing the greatest challenge of his six years in office in defending a government motion to back "all means necessary" to disarm Iraq, and he roused the House to rare applause with as passionate a speech as he has delivered since becoming prime minister.
When the final tally for the measure authorizing the government to use "all means necessary" to disarm Hussein came 10 hours later, 138 of the 410 Labor members of Parliament voted against the government. It was the largest mutiny against Blair since he became prime minister, and substantially more than the 122 Labor anti-war opponents who had defied the government in a similar vote three weeks ago. But anti-war legislators had been hoping for more than 150 votes this time, and the overall vote of 412-149 gave the government a majority of 263.
Noting the high stakes of yesterday's charged debate in the packed chamber, Blair said, "Here we are: the government with its most serious test, its majority at risk, the first Cabinet resignation over an issue of policy, the main parties divided."
President Bush's staunchest ally, Blair has deployed 45,000 British troops to the Persian Gulf and worked to try to bring skeptical world opinion around to his and Bush's hard-line stance.
But a majority of the British public remain unconvinced of the need to go to war now, and a large number of Blair's fellow Labor Party members in Parliament share their misgivings.
The day began inauspiciously for Blair when two junior ministers, John Denham from the Home Office and Lord Hunt from the Health Ministry, resigned in protest. They joined Robin Cook, Commons leader, who quit the Cabinet on Monday and gave a stirring speech of his own Monday night explaining his reasons in the House.
However, Clare Short, the most outspoken member of the Cabinet, decided to stay on despite having recently called the prime minister's policy reckless.