Parliament Rejects Blair's Terrorist Custody Law British Prime Minister Tony Blair suffers a major defeat, as Parliament rejects a measure that would allow the government to hold terrorism suspects for 90 days without charge. Members later passed a compromise bill that allows for a 28-day detention period.
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Parliament Rejects Blair's Terrorist Custody Law

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Parliament Rejects Blair's Terrorist Custody Law

Parliament Rejects Blair's Terrorist Custody Law

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

To Britain now. In Parliament today, Prime Minister Tony Blair suffered a serious defeat.

(Soundbite of vote tally)

Unidentified Man: The ayes to the right: 291. The nos to the left: 322.

(Soundbite of cheering)

NORRIS: At issue: sweeping, new anti-terror legislation. It would have allowed police to detain suspected terrorists for up to 90 days without charging them.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

That vote followed hours of fiery debate, and in the end lawmakers passed a compromise bill that allows police to hold terror suspects for 28 days.

NORRIS: Jimmy Burns covers security issues for The Financial Times, and he joins us now.

Mr. Burns, how big a blow was this to Tony Blair?

Mr. JIMMY BURNS (The Financial Times): Well, I think it's politically a very significant blow. I mean, Tony Blair had gambled a lot on this vote. He put his personal authority and reputation behind the extension of detention to the 90-day limit. And this is the first major, in fact, significant parliamentary defeat he's suffered since he was elected prime minister in 1997.

NORRIS: You noted that he put a lot of stock in this. He actually called back Cabinet ministers who were overseas. He refused to compromise, even give an inch, to his opponents. How has he now reacted to this defeat?

Mr. BURNS: Well, I think he's going to have to mull it over. I mean, his reaction was obviously to put on--a brave face on it and say that government continues and this was simply a parliamentary defeat. But I think there comes a point psychologically when prime ministers wobble; their sense of political mortality is discovered. We saw it with Maggie Thatcher when her own party started voting against her, and we've seen it here tonight in London in the House of Parliament, where substantial numbers of Labor MPs of his own party voted against him. And it was a very significant rebellion.

NORRIS: So the prime ministers wobble, but do they fall down? One member of the opposition party has said that the prime minister's authority has diminished to the vanishing point; others are calling for him to step down. Is that hyperbole, or is he really in that much hot water?

Mr. BURNS: Well, there's, obviously, as there always is in politics, quite a lot of hyperbole in that. But even before this vote, most reliable political, independent commentators here were predicting that Tony Blair could well be out by this coming summer, that we are now beginning to see the end of an era in British politics.

NORRIS: This bill was drafted at the wake of the terrorist attacks on the London subways. Could you explain what this bill would do and why it was so controversial?

Mr. BURNS: It was drafted by senior police chiefs involved in the war against terror, arguably, in some haste, and there is a sense that the government, led by Tony Blair, really waded into this rather like a bull in the china shop. And clearly it was one step too far for the majority of members of Parliament to accept.

NORRIS: So do the deep divisions in Parliament reflect the divisions of the debate among British people? Is this seen as bad legislation or just bad politics?

Mr. BURNS: Well, the jury is really out on that. It's a good question because, I mean, we've had the most extraordinary kind of divided debate on this. I suppose the one thing going in favor of Tony Blair, from a purely populist point of view, is that the mass-circulation Sun, which claims to be "the voice of the people," inverted commas, showed overwhelming support for the 90-day detention. But, I mean, members of Parliament, after all, are paid to take an informed, paused and measured view on how to conduct politics, you know, because otherwise, you know, the country ends up being ruled by the rabble.

NORRIS: But the interesting thing here is the public polling suggested that there was widespread support for this bill.

Mr. BURNS: Well, absolutely. But, I mean, you know, at the end of the day, the fight against terrorism, you know, has to take in, too, other factors and not least the Muslim community in this country, which, after all, if they're not on board on this, the key intelligence that clearly was lacking in the run-up to July the 7th will simply not be there.

NORRIS: This, I imagine, is not over yet. What's the next step?

Mr. BURNS: I think the general bet, if one could bet on politics these days, is that that compromise proposal of 28 days will probably get through Parliament. And, remember, it has to also go to the House of Lords. The problem with the House of Lords on an issue like this is it includes a lot of very learned judges, who will certainly examine even this proposal of 28 days to make sure that it doesn't fall foul of the human rights legislation in Europe.

NORRIS: Jimmy Burns, thanks so much. Good to talk to you.

Mr. BURNS: Thanks a lot.

NORRIS: Jimmy Burns covers security issues for The Financial Times.

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