Blair Suffers Major Defeat on Terror Bill By Ed Johnson
The Associated Press
Wednesday 09 November 2005
London - In a political blow to Prime Minister Tony Blair, British lawmakers on Wednesday rejected tough anti-terrorism legislation that would have allowed suspects to be detained for 90 days without charge.
The House of Commons vote was the first major defeat of Blair's premiership and raises serious questions about his grip on power. Blair had staked his authority on the measure and doggedly refused to compromise.
Lawmakers, including 49 members of Blair's Labour Party, opted instead for a maximum detention period for terror suspects of 28 days without charge.
Michael Howard, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, said Blair's authority had "diminished almost to vanishing point" and said he should consider resigning.
"This vote shows he is no longer able to carry his own party with him. He must now consider his position," said Howard.
But Blair was defiant. He ruled out resignation and insisted lawmakers had been wrong to put the civil liberties of a small number of terrorists ahead of the "fundamental civil liberty of this country to protection from terrorism."
"The country will think that Parliament has behaved in a deeply irresponsible way today," he added.
Lawmakers voted 322 to 291 against 90-day detentions and backed the 28-day period by 323-290 votes.
The result is a humiliating blow to Blair. For eight years, his Labour government commanded an unassailable lead in the Commons and easily swatted aside opposition to its legislation.
But Blair's popularity has slumped in the wake of the divisive Iraq war, and his party was punished in national elections earlier this year. Labour's huge 161-seat advantage in the Commons shrunk to just 66, making the government vulnerable.
In the immediate aftermath of the July attacks on London's transit system, Blair had considerable cross-party support for new anti-terror legislation.
He drafted the Terrorism Bill, which aims to tackle Muslim extremism by outlawing training in terrorist camps as well encouraging acts of violence and glorifying terrorism.
But the political consensus broke down over the plan to extend the period terror suspects can be held without change from the current 14-day maximum to three months. Authorities argued more time was needed in complex cases where suspects have multiple aliases or where the help of foreign intelligence agencies is needed. But critics countered that extending it to 90 days would erode civil rights.
Blair took a considerable political gamble in refusing to back down and had called in every supporter to shore up numbers. Treasury chief Gordon Brown was called back from an official visit to Israel only two hours after arriving there. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw cut short an official EU visit to Russia, while Labour Party chairman Ian McCartney, who is recuperating from heart surgery, volunteered to return for the vote.
The defeat comes at a difficult time for the prime minister. His party, and even his Cabinet, is split over his plans to encourage greater private sector investment in public services such as health care and education. Earlier this month, Blair's strongest ally, Work and Pensions Secretary David Blunkett, was forced to resign due to a scandal over his business dealings.
The prime minister has said he will not seek a fourth term in office. He could serve until 2010, but pressure for him to quit sooner may intensify following Wednesday's vote.
Bookmakers Ladbrokes cut the odds on Blair stepping down next year from 11 to 4, to 5 to 2 in the wake of the defeat.
"The prime minister has just fallen off the high wire," said Scottish Nationalist Party leader Alex Salmond. "He is a victim of his own arrogance. He may well be on the way out of office."