Blair Suffers Blow with Failure of Anti-Terror Bill

British lawmakers rejected anti-terrorism legislation Wednesday that would have let suspects be detained up to 90 days without charge. Renee Montagne talks with Edward Carr, Britain editor of The Economist, about how the vote could affect Prime Minister Tony Blair's political future.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair, has faced a serious defeat in Parliament. Today, he faces the task of shoring up his diminishing political capital. Yesterday, the House of Commons, where Tony Blair's Labor Party enjoys a comfortable majority, voted soundly against a measure that would have allowed terrorism suspects to be jailed without charge for up to 90 days. Later, Parliament approved a maximum detention period of 28 days. Tony Blair had campaigned hard for the legislation.

Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (Great Britain): It's, obviously, a defeat I wish hadn't happened, but the reason I wish it hadn't happened is that we were trying to do the right thing for the country.

MONTAGNE: That's British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Edward Carr is Britain editor for The Economist magazine.

Hello.

Mr. EDWARD CARR (The Economist): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Tony Blair has had, you know, defeats before, and certain amount of bad press, but this one seems to be big.

Mr. CARR: Yeah, this is a savage blow for the prime minister. You can never write off a politician of his caliber, but this was his first defeat in the Commons in eight years, and it was a really bad one. I mean, I think his authority's in question now, and so is the legislation that he set out for his third term.

MONTAGNE: A colleague of yours has suggested that Tony Blair can no longer be called, as he has been, Teflon Tony.

Mr. CARR: He has, in his eight years as prime minister, demonstrated an incredible ability to call his party's bluff. Sometimes it's almost seemed as if he's governing in spite of his party, against his party. Suddenly, that no longer looks possible. In this piece of legislation, he set out to defy the rebels, to dare them to vote against him, and they did. Now, with some very difficult legislation coming up, he now has to start negotiating with Parliament, rather than acting in spite of it.

MONTAGNE: Well, I think it's important to point out to American listeners that these are rebels in his own party.

Mr. CARR: Yes. He, as a centrist, and a reformer of the Labor Party, has always had a certain amount of enemies inside his own party. These are sort of unreformed old-style Labor MPs who believe in state intervention and state ownership. He's always had those rebels. I think the difference now is that his majority in this Parliament is much smaller than it was last time. It's still substantial but it's much smaller. So suddenly this rump of 20, 25 MPs, who consistently voted against him, start to carry some weight.

MONTAGNE: And did he realize this, in a sense, in pushing for this particular bit of legislation, and then refusing to back down, really, in the face of defeat?

Mr. CARR: I think Tony Blair's supporters would say two things about this legislation. The first is that it's about civil liberties, but he's got the public on his side. Polls show that most of the public think that the 90-day time in which police have to question terrorist suspects, that that's a good thing. So the others have gone against public opinion. The other thing is I think it leaves the opposition, the Conservative Party, a little bit vulnerable. God forbid there's another terrorist attack in London, but, if there were one, suddenly, Mr. Blair starts looking rather more sensible.

MONTAGNE: So what does this all add up for Tony Blair politically? Does it mean his days are numbered?

Mr. CARR: It's a big blow to his authority, and, unless he changes his style of government, I think he'll start finding that he can't get his legislation through. If that happens, who knows when he might go? Some people are even saying he might go as early as next year when he could stay on four or five years.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. CARR: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Edward Carr is Britain editor for The Economist magazine, speaking to us from London.

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