Tony Blair was facing a damaging defeat last night over demands for the early withdrawal of British troops from Iraq after failing to buy off the votes of the four big unions at Labour's annual conference.
At a lunchtime meeting at the Brighton conference centre, the Prime Minister pleaded with union leaders not to back a motion calling for the early withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. Mr Blair offered a compromise statement on Iraq by the party's national executive committee to persuade them not to vote for the "troops out" motion on Thursday.
The unions countered by warning the Prime Minister that he would need to set a date for the withdrawal of British forces in his keynote speech today to the conference if they were to move from the policy on Iraq agreed at the TUC annual conference.
Iraq, and the fate of the British hostage Ken Bigley, cast a bleak shadow over the conference. Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, who resigned from the Cabinet over the war, warned Mr Blair at a fringe meeting that he would not be able to draw a line under the war by apologising. He said those demanding an apology would "push him into the pit" once he had done so.
The spectacle of Mr Blair negotiating with the union leaders in "smoke-filled rooms" to head off a defeat on Iraq fuelled the impression of an embattled leader. His authority has been battered by Iraq and a defeat would be highly damaging as he prepares for the general election.
He cannot afford to duck the issue in his leadership speech today but he is not expected to offer an apology, which many conference delegates against the war are demanding.
Alice Mahon, a Labour MP against the war, said: "We have to have some honesty from Tony Blair in his speech about the dreadful mistakes made in illegally invading Iraq. I don't think anything less will do."
Doug Henderson, a former foreign office minister, who opposed the war, said: "This is the most difficult speech Tony Blair has had to make in his life."
The union leaders told Mr Blair to acknowledge the deep dismay felt by most party members over the invasion and occupation and said some sign of contrition in the leader's speech would also help to defuse the growing anger at the conference over the war in Iraq.
The most difficult affiliates to persuade will be the public service union Unison, the Transport & General and the GMB general union, which together make up about a third of the conference vote. The white collar and technical union Amicus has no existing policy on the issue, but a delegation meeting today will decide its position.
Labour officials were engaged in an extensive arm-twisting exercise among delegates from constituencies, which command the remaining half of the votes, to dissuade them for voting for the "troops out" option.
It is expected that the conference will endorse a loyalist motion on Iraq but it was unclear last night whether the critical resolution would also be passed. Mr Blair's favoured proposition expresses concern about the security problems but simply called for forces to be withdrawn from Iraq "as soon as possible". A second motion he is desperate to avoid calls on him to set "an early date" for withdrawal.
Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, who will reply to Thursday's debate, also sought to persuade conference delegates not to back the call to set a date for withdrawal. He told delegates at a private meeting that a UN resolution passed in June said British troops would be withdrawn by the end of the year. He said any removal of troops before that deadline, without the consent of the new Iraqi government, would be contrary to the UN resolution.
Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's former envoy to Iraq, said Britain would be more vulnerable to attack if the troops were withdrawn prematurely. He said Iraq had become the "front line" in the war against international terrorism and the UK could not pull out now without damaging its interests.
"Terrorists have come in to challenge us in Iraq and that is a front line against terrorism more globally. If we back out of that front line - give it up - it makes our society more vulnerable to terrorism coming towards us," he said.
"There is no doubt that we haven't done everything wonderfully. Mistakes have been made. Even the Prime Minister has alluded to that. Nevertheless, that doesn't diminish the imperative to see this one through for the sake of longer-term British interests."