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Blair suffers pre-election revolt over terror laws
Updated: 2005-03-01 09:21

A damaging revolt by the ruling Labour Party on Monday rocked British Prime Minister Tony Blair weeks before an expected election, slashing his huge majority as proposed anti-terrorism laws barely scraped through parliament.

Rebellious Labour lawmakers joined opposition MPs in condemning the proposed change in the law as draconian, reducing the government's 159-seat majority in the elected House of Commons to just 53 on the vote.

Blair speaks at his monthly news conference in this February 25, 2005. [Reuters/file]
Blair speaks at his monthly news conference in this February 25, 2005. [Reuters/file]
Blair has been trying to rally his party for an election widely expected in early May, but bitter divisions over whether Britain should have joined the U.S. invasion of Iraq have yet to heal.

Analysts say Blair is on course for a third election win, but a newspaper poll last week said his double-digit lead over the main opposition Conservative Party had been cut to just two points.

Blair's anti-terror legislation may run into a brick wall this week in the unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords, where Labour lacks a majority and opposition is fierce.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke, bowing to widespread opposition to the bill, offered a concession on Monday -- that any government "control order" to place a terror suspect under house arrest would require the approval of a judge, although police could hold the suspect pending the judge's ruling.

Until now, Clarke has insisted that the power to place suspects under house arrest should rest with ministers, not the judiciary.

But Blair said he would not back down on the basic principle behind the bill -- that there must be measures between merely monitoring suspects and prosecuting them in court, which would require evidence "beyond reasonable doubt."

"There are several hundred of them in this country who we believe are engaged in plotting or trying to commit terrorist acts," Blair told BBC Radio.

"I can't make a concession on the basic principle because that would be to ignore the advice I am being given."

The debate has pushed national security up Britain's pre-election agenda, prompting parallels with the United States where President Bush's tough talk on terrorism last year helped him win a second term.

The government has raised the specter of an attack similar to the 2004 Madrid train bombs on the eve of Spain's elections.


Blair wants to rush the legislation through parliament and onto the statute books by March 14, when current anti-terrorism powers expire.

Ten suspects are currently detained under those powers, including Abu Qatada, a Syrian cleric who Britain says was the spiritual inspiration for the leading Sept. 11, 2001 hijacker.

Britain's highest court ruled in December that current powers to detain foreign suspects without trial violated basic rights, forcing the government to draw up a substitute in haste.

Critics say the proposed laws violate basic freedoms that have underpinned Britain's judicial system for 800 years.

The House of Lords, which starts examining the bill on Tuesday, may be emboldened by the close vote in the Commons and the strength of anti-government feeling there.

The Lords cannot reject the bill but can delay it, which would effectively put the law on hold until after the election expected in May.

The government may find ammunition for its tough stance in the trial in London of Briton Saajid Badat, who pleaded guilty on Monday to conspiring to use an explosive identical to that of "shoe bomber" Richard Reid to bring down aircraft in 2001.

An opinion poll on Monday showed public support for the government -- a majority of those questioned backed ministers' right to impose house arrest orders without a judge's consent.

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