Tony Blair's first loss in Parliament in 8 years in office this evening has been bigger than expected; 322 votes to 291 (49 labour MPs rebelling). The proposals were to allow the detention of terrorist suspects for up to 90 days without trial, provided that the detention was justified before a high court judge every 7 days. The measure was strongly supported by the police, and, Blair claims, by the British public. Parliament in the end opted for a 28-day period.
Blair's response has been unrepentent and a little bewildered. I paraphrase here from an interview on BBC World, but his response was to say "Sometimes it is better to lose a vote trying to do the right thing, than to win one doing the wrong thing". Further, he exclaimed "I don't understand - I really don't understand this at all, but Parliament has voted and that is its right to do so - how, given the seriousness of the terrorist threat we face, can the civil rights of a small number of terrorist suspects - who would have to appear before a judge every seven days in any event - outweigh the fundamental civil liberty of this country" to be free from terrorism.
This was his immediate reaction, and his obvious incredulity shows that he has clearly lost touch with a significant element within his own party; an element signficant enough to overturn his 66-seat majority, should the Tories and Lib Dems see fit to give him another bloody nose. The Tories, of course, would undoubtedly rush to bring in such a law if police advice was to remain the same should they ever be voted back into power; such, however, is party politics. Blair may thus face a similarly tough time soon, with votes on reforms on the health and education sectors, unpopular with many in the labour party, coming up.
And where is Gordon Brown in all this? Doing what he always does in such circumstances: the minimum he has to to support Blair's government (he had barely arrived in Israel today before he was recalled for the vote), and otherwise keeping his head down and his mouth firmly shut. His time may well be approaching; bookmakers William Hill have, according to the Guardian tonight reduced the odds on Blair leaving office before the end of the year from 3-1 to 7-4.