Wednesday, November 9, 2005

LONDON — Parliament rejected a key anti-terrorism measure backed by Prime Minister Tony Blair, the first parliamentary defeat in Mr. Blair’s eight years as Britain’s leader.

Rebel members in Mr. Blair’s Labor Party joined government opponents in rejecting 322-291 a proposal — drafted following July attacks on London’s mass-transit system by British-born Muslims — that would have allowed police to hold terror suspects for up to 90 days without charge.

Instead, the House of Commons voted 323-290 for a watered-down measure that would let police detain suspected terrorists for up to 28 days, double the present detention period.

“Obviously, it is a defeat,” Mr. Blair told British Broadcasting Corp. television after the vote. “But we were just trying to do the right thing for the country.”

Fifty members of the Labor Party defied Mr. Blair’s instructions, and some called on him to step down.

“It would be so much better if he would step aside and go off to America and make speeches — and I wish he would hurry up,” said Labor lawmaker Clare Short, a one-time member of Mr. Blair’s Cabinet who resigned over the Iraq war.

“He might go in the next calendar year,” veteran political writer and analyst Anthony Howard said on the BBC. “I think that’s now more likely.”

Actress-turned-politician Glenda Jackson said Mr. Blair “should go, because there’s a marked lack of trust [in him] in the country.”

The prime minister pulled out all the stops to try to stave off defeat.

He sent word to his treasury chief, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who had just landed in Israel for talks with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, to get the next plane back to London, in time for the vote.

Mr. Brown had spent barely two hours at Ben Gurion International Airport. “I’ve been in politics for 22 years,” he told reporters, “and these things happen.”

Likewise, Foreign Secretary Jack Frost was ordered by his boss to rush home from Moscow, where he had been scheduled to take part in European Union talks with Russian authorities.

Closer to home, Labor Party Secretary Ian McCartney had to get out of his sickbed at home, where he had been recovering from triple-bypass heart surgery, and catch a taxi to Parliament.

It was all to little avail, as was Mr. Blair’s own plea hours earlier in Parliament, when he warned during a heated debate that “we are not living in a police state, but we are living in a country that faces a real and serious threat of terrorism — terrorism that wants to destroy our way of life, terrorism that wants to inflict casualties on us without limit.”

The terrorism legislation was drafted by Mr. Blair’s government after July 7 attacks by four Muslim suicide bombers on three London subway trains and a bus that killed 52 passengers. A similar attack two weeks later failed because bombs carried by four terrorists failed to fully detonate.

As he sought to win support for the 90-day detention proposal, Mr. Blair disclosed to Parliament that Britain’s security forces had foiled two separate terrorist attacks since the July 7 onslaught. He did not give any details.

The sweeping legislation that the prime minister wants made law is aimed at tackling Muslim extremism, including outlawing training in terrorist camps, encouraging acts of violence and “glorifying” terrorism.

Mr. Blair’s anti-terrorism initiative has gained considerable public support, but also has triggered opposition among civil and human rights activists, including rebels in his Labor Party.

Barely a week ago, the Labor rebels rose up against another facet of the legislation, a measure that would create a new offense of “glorifying” terrorism.

The Blair government won by a single vote — a razor-thin margin that portended the hammering that the prime minister took yesterday.

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