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Blair Loses Bid to Hold Terrorism Suspects Longer

In a rebuff, lawmakers agree on 28 days without a charge, not the 90 days that he proposed.

November 10, 2005|Vanora McWalters | Special to The Times

LONDON — British lawmakers Wednesday rejected a tough new policy for detaining suspected terrorists, the first major parliamentary defeat for Prime Minister Tony Blair during his eight years in power.

After the deadly July 7 bombings on the London transit system, Blair had called for suspected terrorists to be held without charge for as long as 90 days and had rejected any compromise on the measure. The House of Commons voted to instead double the detention period from 14 to 28 days, a rebuff that observers said raised questions about how long Blair might be able to hold on to power.

Blair's political enemies were quick to claim that the defeat -- by a margin of 31 votes, including 49 no votes from his Labor Party -- proved that the prime minister's heyday was over.

"Mr. Blair's authority has been diminished almost to a 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."

Clare Short, who resigned as minister for international development in protest of 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 anti-terrorism measure, which he said would radically extend the power of the state to fight attacks such as the bombings that killed 52 commuters. Blair said lawmakers of all parties had a duty to support the 90-day detention period.

"In the last week we have learned that since 7/7 two further terrorist plots have been foiled," Blair told Parliament. "Perhaps those that foiled the plots might have their advice taken a little more seriously."

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

Blair, however, ignored 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 said.

It was clear that the prime minister expected Wednesday's vote to be a close call when his top ministers, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, were ordered back from visits to Israel and Russia, respectively.

Yet the scale of the defeat came as a surprise. It followed weeks of setbacks for Blair, including squabbling among normally loyal Labor supporters over a controversial smoking ban and hospital reform and the resignation last week of a key ally, Work and Pensions Secretary David Blunkett.

After the results were announced, Blair left the chamber shaking his head. He told Sky News that he would not quit his post and rejected accusations from Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, that he was "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 won a third term in May, but his parliamentary majority in what he has said will be his last term was cut by about 100, to 66. Aides said Wednesday's vote should not be interpreted as a lack of confidence in Blair.

Nor did it mean that his overall anti-terrorism legislation was doomed, they said.

The anti-terrorism bill is considered more likely to pass its final hurdle before becoming law -- a last debate in the upper chamber, the House of Lords -- with the proposed detention period doubled to 28 days.

But in coming days, Blair will have to play a more sensitive political game, said Philip Cowley, a political analyst at Nottingham University.

"On future legislation, Tony Blair is going to have to compromise with backbenchers," he said. "He's not going to be able to railroad things through."

David Davis, the Conservatives' shadow home secretary, said, "This is a victory for Parliament and for Britain's freedoms."

Human rights activists were less sure.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, a civil liberties and human rights group, criticized "the overt political campaigning of senior police officers" who had lobbied lawmakers and won Blair's support.

Although she said she was heartened by the vote, she emphasized that it still doubled the existing period for detention without a charge.

Gareth Peirce, a human rights lawyer who has defended suspected terrorists, said the extended detention time pandered to police incompetence.

Peirce wrote in the Guardian newspaper that lawmakers should demand an investigation into whether the police, with the powers already at their disposal, did all they could to prevent the July bombings.

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