Blair suffers policy setback

Commons rejects his proposal to allow holding terror suspects 90 days without charges

November 10, 2005|By VANORA MCWALTERS | VANORA MCWALTERS,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LONDON -- British lawmakers rejected a tough new policy for detaining terrorism suspects yesterday, the first major parliamentary defeat suffered by Prime Minister Tony Blair during his eight years in power.

Blair, after the deadly July 7 bombings in the London transit system, had called for terror suspects to be held without charge for up to 90 days - and had rejected any compromise.

The House of Commons voted instead to double the detention period from 14 to 28 days, a rebuff that observers said raises questions about how long Blair might be able to hold onto power.

Blair's political enemies were quick to claim that the defeat - by a margin of 31 votes, including 49 rebels from Blair's own Labor Party - proved that the prime minister's heyday was over.

"Mr. Blair's authority has been diminished almost to the vanishing point," said Michael Howard, leader of the Conservative Party. "This vote shows he is no longer able to carry his own party with him. He must now consider his position."

Former Labor minister Claire Short, who resigned in protest over Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq, said: "His judgment is being called more and more into question. It's hubris that comes from staying in power for a long time. ... It would be good for him and certainly for the Labor government if Tony were to move on."

Blair had staked his personal authority on the proposed anti-terrorism law, which would have radically extended the power of the state to fight attacks such as the summer bombings that killed 52 people. Blair said lawmakers of all parties had a "duty" to support legislation formalizing the change to 90 days.

Blair's defeat on the proposal came a week after parliamentarians temporarily withdrew the measure for further negotiation because of concerns that it would mark a retreat from traditional British human rights rules.

However, Blair proceeded to ignore Home Secretary Charles Clark's attempts to forge a cross-party consensus with lawmakers reluctant to see suspects detained for more than 28 days.

"Sometimes it is better to lose and do the right thing than win and do the wrong thing," Blair told Parliament.

It was clear that he expected yesterday's vote to be an unusually close call when his two top ministers, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Blair and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, were abruptly ordered back from visits to Israel and Russia.

Yet the scale of the defeat - after weeks of political reverses for Blair, including open squabbling among normally loyal Labor supporters over a controversial smoking ban and hospital reform, and the resignation last week of a key ally, ex-pensions minister David Blunkett - came as a surprise.

After the results were announced, Blair left the chamber shaking his head. He later told Sky News he would not quit his post and rejected accusations from Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy that he was now "a lame duck."

"People will believe Parliament was deeply irresponsible," Blair said. "What I cannot understand is how we can say, given the strength of the terrorist threat that we face, that the civil liberties of a small number of terrorist suspects - who we are saying in any event have to come back before a court every seven days - come before the fundamental civil liberty in this country of protection from terrorism."

Blair will have to play a more sensitive political game, said Philip Cowley, a political analyst from Nottingham University: "On future legislation, Tony Blair is going to have to compromise with backbenchers. He's not going to be able to railroad things through."

Vanora McWalters writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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