London (CNSNews.com) - President Bush's speech on missile defense has inadvertently triggered a political storm in Britain, making the subject a likely issue in the election campaign due to begin shortly.
Aware of the sensitivity of the subject among members of his own Labor Party, Prime Minister Tony Blair has stopped short of fully endorsing Bush's proposals to develop an anti-missile shield for the U.S. and interested allies. Opponents believe he doesn't want the matter to be raised before an election.
But minutes after Blair dodged the issue during a parliamentary question-and-answer session Wednesday - going no further than saying the UK should listen to the American plans - his official spokesman told reporters that the government broadly backed the idea.
"The Americans are the last remaining superpower. They are the only ones who can develop this new technology and they are going ahead with it," Alastair Campbell said.
He said the UK government supported the Americans "taking the lead in the assessment of the battle against what could be a real threat from different parts of the world."
Blair's spokesman's comments reflected a far more positive stance toward the missile defense proposals than any the prime minister has publicly taken up until now.
As such, the opposition Conservative Party said it should never have been left up to Campbell to signal the policy shift, but should have been done by Blair himself.
"Who's governing the country, for goodness sake?" Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative defense spokesman, asked during an interview on BBC radio.
Bush announced Tuesday the U.S. would go ahead with a plan to build an umbrella against missiles that may in the future be launched by hostile states, a step that will necessitate amending or abandoning altogether the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
The Conservatives have been urging Blair for months to come out clearly in support of the American plan, which could require the upgrading of one or more U.S. radar stations in England.
Blair said again in parliament Wednesday he would wait until he received a "specific proposal" from the U.S. before taking a decision. He acknowledged that it was "a highly sensitive issue and that we should handle it with care."
Many Labor members, including some members of Blair's cabinet, have in the past backed anti-nuclear causes, and some still do. They are firmly opposed to a scrapping of the ABM Treaty.
Before Blair spoke, Labor lawmaker Michael Clapham criticized the U.S. proposal, telling the House of Commons it would "move the world into a much more dangerous state."
Picking up on the Labor dissent, Duncan Smith berated Blair for "pathetically weak leadership." He said the prime minister was "more concerned with keeping his hard-leftwing colleagues on side than backing the U.S. administration and persuading his friends in the EU to do likewise on this hugely important issue of global security."
Duncan Smith has been tipped in recent days as a strong contender for the Conservative leadership if William Hague is forced to resign after an election defeat.
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