The Prime Minister has given personal permission for the Army to assist Oxford University in the construction of its animal research facility, despite fears that members of his Cabinet are resisting calls for the Government to intervene against animal-rights extremists, The Times Higher can reveal.
Senior sources close to the Government said this week that Tony Blair had told Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister, that the Army could be deployed to protect the £18 million project at Oxford if activists made it impossible for building contractors to complete their work.
The news comes as Oxford confirmed that Montpellier, the construction company in charge of the building work, had terminated its contract after a campaign of threats against its shareholders and violent attacks on its suppliers.
When asked about plans to bring in the Army, Lord Sainsbury told The Times Higher : "The Government is absolutely determined that this is drawing the line in the sand, and we will go ahead with the building of the centre. We can't allow it to be stopped by this kind of terrorism, and we will make sure it is built."
But senior scientists said this week that some Cabinet ministers did not share Lord Sainsbury's determination to tackle extremism. They said that two ministers had been arguing privately that the Government should not be sticking its neck out on animal research.
David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, was widely rumoured to be one of those digging their heels in. A source near to the Government said Mr Blunkett was fundamentally opposed to the use of animals in medical research.
But this personal stance would not stop the Home Secretary from toughening legislation to tackle the extreme tactics of activists because "as a law-and-order issue, he sees it differently", the source said.
Simon Festing, director of public dialogue at the Association of Medical Research Charities, likened the situation at Oxford to the Newbury bypass siege in the mid-1990s. He said: "Once the Government is pushed to a certain stage, it has to do something drastic."
Tipu Aziz, one of the country's top brain surgeons, who is based at Oxford, said the presence of soldiers would be welcomed by researchers. He said:
"If it were a political act of terrorism, they would send in the Army - I don't see why this is different."
Professor Aziz added: "This handful of activists is holding the nation's health hostage. It is crazy to think how much money has to be spent on security that could be spent on better facilities and more research."
Experts on political activism said that Lord Sainsbury was right to characterise events at Oxford as terrorism. Bill Durodie, director of the Centre for International Security Analysis at King's College London, said that in some ways animal-rights extremism was a more tangible terrorist threat than al-Qaeda.
Professor Durodie said: "I suspect there have been more attacks by such groups in the UK since September 11 than by al-Qaeda."
Paul Wilkinson, chairman of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews University, explained: "The fact that this militant fringe is focused on animal welfare doesn't alter the fact that its behaviour is terroristic."
Oxford has yet to make a statement about who might take over the construction of the new facility, of which three storeys have been raised.
But an Oxford insider said that the university had begun to line up a standby when Montpellier first came under attack.
It is thought that the university will avoid publicly naming any new contractor, and will ensure that future deliveries to the site are made in unmarked vehicles.
The rise of animal-rights activism has caused divisions within the university. One senior scientist said: "There are a lot of people who wish this animal unit wasn't going up. Having abuse shouted at you every day by protesters on your way to work isn't pleasant."
Speak, the group leading the public campaign to stop the Oxford facility, said this week that the withdrawal of Montpellier was "a significant step forward".