Tony Blair, on the eve of his tenth anniversary as leader of the Labour Party, echoed one of the most famous quotations from Lady Thatcher yesterday by telling critics of the war in Iraq to "rejoice".
Lady Thatcher told Britain to "Just rejoice... rejoice" when British forces recaptured South Georgia on 25 April 1982. She was under pressure for allowing the Falkland Islands to be invaded by Argentina.
Mr Blair's use of the word "rejoice" - loaded with all the defiance that Lady Thatcher had given it - made Labour backbenchers wince during the Commons debate on the Butler report. "We couldn't believe it when he said that," said one Labour MP. "We shouted 'Thatcher' at him."
Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair participates in a debate about Iraq in this image taken from TV at the House of Commons in London Tuesday July 20, 2004. (AP Photo/PA)
Mr Blair immediately recognized the gaffe, and quickly added: "Yes - let us be pleased."
A former whip, loyal to Mr Blair, said: "Rejoice is a word that we will have to wipe from the dictionary. I was appalled he used it."
But the damage was done. Alice Mahon, one of 41 MPs of all parties who staged a token protest vote against the Government on Iraq last night, said: "I don't know how he could say 'rejoice' when thousands of lives have been lost. They never counted the number of Iraqis who died, but how can he say rejoice? It is an insult to those who have died."
Alan Simpson, another leftwing Labour MP who campaigned against the war, said: "The only one who will rejoice with Tony Blair is Osama bin Laden."
Mr Blair painted a rosy picture of life after Saddam Hussein in Iraq, completely at odds with many eye-witness accounts of the Iraqi people's suffering.
Declaring "the blessings from the fall of Saddam are great," Mr Blair spoke of the 35 local elections in Iraq; the doubling of public-sector salaries; and schools and hospitals which were now open. "Removing Saddam was not a war crime. It was an act of liberation for the Iraqi people," he said. "My view is whatever mistakes have been made, rejoice that Iraq can have such a future."
He was immediately criticized by opposition MPs. Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader said: "He still doesn't get it. He does not know that he has got to show genuine contrition." Tam Dalyell, the Father of the House, called for Mr Blair to resign. Robin Cook, who resigned from the Cabinet over the issue, said the invasion of Iraq had created the conditions in which al-Qa'ida was "thriving". Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, said: "Why is it that for this Prime Minister, sorry seems to be the hardest word?"
The Prime Minister's denial that he lied over the war was under fresh scrutiny last night after Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, admitted he knew in September last year that two pieces of intelligence about Saddam's chemical and biological weapons had been withdrawn by MI6. Downing Street insisted that the Prime Minister did not know the intelligence had been withdrawn until the Butler inquiry was under way, but Mr Straw's admission will raise fresh doubts about assurances from No 10. It will also raise questions as to why no minister told the Hutton inquiry, and it will fuel calls for the inquiry by the Foreign Affairs Committee to be reopened today.
Admitting mistakes, Mr Blair announced four measures to respond to criticism in the Butler report.
There will be an end to "Government by sofa" - in a future crisis, Mr Blair will set up an ad hoc committee of the Cabinet with proper minutes. William Ehrman, the new head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, will be replaced in 2005 with an appointment of "someone beyond influence" by ministers. Senior intelligence officers will review the Butler report's findings and, finally, JIC assessments will be kept separate from the Government's case in any future dossier.
CAUSE FOR REJOICING?
* British soldiers killed during Iraq war: 60
* British soldiers injured in the conflict: 2,200
* Iraqi soldiers killed: 6,370 (estimate)
* Iraqi civilians killed: 13,000 (estimate)
* Projected cost of reconstruction: £55bn
* UK cost of war: £3.2bn
* Annual cost of keeping UK troops in Iraq: £1.5bn
* Percentage of Iraqis who would feel safer if US and UK troops left: 55
* Percentage of UK voters who believe Blair lied: 55
* Weapons of mass destruction found: 0
© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd