Police state : UK : Blair leadership on the line


Richard Moore


Blair puts leadership on the line 

By Nick Assinder 
Political Correspondent, BBC News website 

Tony Blair continues to insist his anti-terror proposals
are not a test of his leadership - but by refusing to give
way he appears to have deliberately chosen to place his
authority firmly on the line.

If he fails in his attempt to win over the 90-day
detention period for suspects - and even if Janet
Anderson's 60-day fallback plan is accepted - he will have
handed his critics a major victory.

And that could quickly intensify all the current talk over
his future, strengthening those demanding he quit sooner
rather than later.

Tory support hopes

The prime minister's surprise refusal to offer a
widely-expected compromise on the period of detention came
after he and Home Secretary Charles Clarke met backbench
Labour MPs in the Commons.

So the prime minister's hard line suggests he believes
that the concessions already made - a sunset clause and
judicial oversight - will be enough to reassure a
sufficient number of his backbench rebels to avert defeat.

Governments can seldom go wrong with the electorate by
appearing tough on law and order
Nick Assinder 
He may also believe that some Tory MPs, fearful they might
be portrayed as soft on terror, will now defy their
leadership and either abstain or even back the government.

That is a tactic he has ruthlessly deployed, irrespective
of the arguments for and against his proposals,
challenging his own rebels to decide whose side they are
on - his and the police's or the Tories  And he already
feels certain he has the public on his side - a fact
apparently supported by recent surveys.

But the early signs are that he is still facing a knife
edge vote when the proposals are put before MPs on

There may be some Tories like Ann Widdecombe who now
believe the sunset clause is enough to answer her fears
and stop her voting against the government.

Others on all sides, however, believe they have been led
up the garden path with pledges of forthcoming concessions
being abandoned after ministers used the time that bought
to lean on rebels.

Until Monday night few, if any, in Westminster believed
there was any chance the prime minister would succeed in
winning the 90-day proposal after his 66 majority was
reduced to just one on a related anti-terror vote.

And despite a concerted campaign by ministers, whips and
police chiefs to hammer home the need for the new power,
it appeared he was certain to be defeated.

Difficult times

It is possible that Mr Blair believes the Commons
arithmetic has shifted dramatically over the past couple
of days.

It may also be that, at one of the most difficult times
for his premiership, he is determined to stand and fight
over an issue on which he feels absolutely certain and on
which he believes he has public support.

After all, governments can seldom go wrong with the
electorate by appearing tough on law and order.

And he would probably rather be having a knock down fight
over this issue than some of the other key policies such
as education, welfare and pensions on which he is also
facing serious internal opposition.

If he wins the terror battle, it may well enhance his
authority and allow him to press ahead with those other
controversial reforms while his rebels might hesitate to
challenge him again.

The prime minister gave an indication of his determination
during his monthly press conference a few hours before
meeting his backbenchers.

He said his determination to push through the 90 day
detention proposal was "absolutely undiminished".   He
insisted it was right thing to do and suggested that
opposing it would compromise national security. It doesn't
get much stronger than that.

Yet he also insisted it was not about his authority or a
matter of confidence in his leadership and that to make it
such would only prove a distraction from the issue at

That may be the case - but by taking the uncompromising
stand he has now adopted he may ensure that that is the
outcome of this fierce battle.

Story from BBC NEWS: 

Published: 2005/11/08 09:53:33 GMT 



Blair facing crunch terror vote 
Chancellor Gordon Brown and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw
have cut short high level foreign trips as Tony Blair
fights to avoid defeat on terror plans.

MPs will vote on plans to allow police  to hold terror
suspects for 90 days without charge at about 1800 GMT.

The Tories, Lib Dems and enough Labour MPs oppose the
plans to mean the result is seen as being on a knife-edge.

Chancellor Mr Brown, called back within minutes of
arriving in Israel, said he wanted to maximise Labour's

I think it's important that I talk to my colleagues so
that we maximise our vote Chancellor Gordon Brown

Mr Brown was due to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as the head
of a joint G8 and European Union initiative to help
regenerate the economy in the region.

But after receiving messages from the government's chief
whip when he arrived in Israel, he is now flying home.

Tory rebellion? 

Mr Brown is thought to have arranged for an opposition MP
to abstain so he did not need to need to return to vote

But he said he wanted to try to persuade backbench
colleagues to back the 90-day detention plans - which was
originally proposed by police chiefs.

Mr Brown told BBC News: "It's important that I talk to my
colleagues so that we maximise our vote, I think it's
important that people know that we all take the issues of
national security as seriously as we do."

    1200 GMT : Tony Blair faces prime minister's questions 
    1240 : Debate on report stage of Terrorism Bill begins 
    About 1800 : Key detention vote expected 

The chancellor said he was disappointed cross-party talks
had failed to produce a consensus.

Asked if the episode showed Mr Blair's authority was
faltering, he replied: "No, I don't think so at all. These
are issues that people feel strongly about."

Mr Brown stressed he would still be able to complete most
of his trip in the Middle East. He will now meet
Palestinian and Israeli finance ministers on Thursday.

No compromise

Meanwhile the foreign secretary is flying back early from
Moscow. where he will attend EU-Russia talks, but miss
some other planned meetings by "returning a little early".

The prime minister, who has said he will step down before
the election due by 2010, is seen as having staked much of
his authority on the outcome of the vote.

He has refused to compromise on the plan to extend the
time limit for detaining terrorism suspects without charge
from 14 days to 90 days.

    Labour's majority: 66 
    Total Labour MPs: 354 
    Tory MPs: 196 
    Lib Dem MPs: 62 
    Scottish/Welsh nationalists: 9 
    Democratic Unionists: 9 
    Other voting MPs: 7 

There is a fallback position of holding a vote on an
amendment proposing a 60-day limit.

One Labour MP has described the atmosphere at Westminster
in the run-up to the vote as "ferocious".

The Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour rebels are expected
to back Labour backbencher David Winnick's proposal that
suspects be held for a maximum 28 days without charge.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke last week avoided a vote -
and possible defeat - on the 90-day proposal by promising
further discussion.

But ministers are now sticking by their original plan,
seeking to win over Labour rebels and also some Tory MPs. 
Mr Clarke says he has made substantial concessions,
including the promise of a "sunset clause", meaning the
new law would expire in a year's time unless MPs approve
it again.

A High Court judge will also have to agree an extension of
detention every seven days.

On Tuesday, the UK's most senior police chief warned of
"chilling" evidence of new terrorist plots against the UK
as he urged MPs to lend their support to the government's

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair said the
police were "not in an auction" over the plan.

But they believed 90 days was the right length of time
needed because of the complexity and mass of evidence in
terrorism cases.

Civil liberties groups say the plan is essentially
internment and would see people locked up for the
equivalent of a six months prison sentence.

Story from BBC NEWS: 

Published: 2005/11/09 09:17:32 GMT 



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