Mike Peacock / Globe and Mail / Reuters News Service – 2005-11-03 23:40:57
LONDON (November 3, 2005) — British Prime Minister Tony Blair suffered twin blows to his authority yesterday when a close ally quit government and he was forced to back down on terrorism laws to avoid the first major defeat during eight years in office.
Cabinet minister David Blunkett resigned for the second time in less than a year, just months after Mr. Blair had returned him to government, over accusations he violated a ministerial code of conduct. His resignation prompted a blistering opposition attack on the Prime Minister’s judgment.
Heaping further misery on Mr. Blair, Labour Party rebels helped to vote down plans to give police the right to hold terrorist suspects without charge for up to 90 days.
Mr. Blair has declared he will not fight another election after winning a third term in May, a move analysts say may erode his power as the clock winds down on his stewardship.
Last week, ministers split openly over major policies, previously unthinkable for a government that had imposed iron discipline since taking office in 1997.
And Mr. Blair faces an increasingly restive parliamentary party. His parliamentary majority was cut in May to 66, about 100 less than before, meaning a rump of disaffected Labour members can cause havoc by voting with opposition parties.
In one vote on the anti-terrorist bill yesterday, Mr. Blair’s majority was cut to one, its lowest to date and perilously close to his first defeat in the elected chamber.
To avoid outright defeat over the 90-day detention measure, Home Secretary Charles Clarke withdrew it and promised a new round of cross-party consultation.
Mr. Blair had put his personal authority behind the measure, insisting police needed 90 days in some cases — up from the current 14 — because of the difficulty in building a case against terrorism suspects.
The loss of a loyal ally is a serious blow to Mr. Blair, particularly because he had fought for Mr. Blunkett to stay. It also raises questions about how he rushed Mr. Blunkett back into government so quickly, particularly since he did the same with Peter Mandelson, who was also forced out of office twice.
“Having made the same mistake twice doesn’t do much for your credibility,” said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Scotland.
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