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Last Updated: Friday, 11 March 2005, 18:19 GMT
Did Blair blink first on terror?
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

As the bitter row over the government's anti-terror laws drew to its ill-tempered close, the Tories believe the prime minister blinked.

The parties want to be seen as tough on terror
In a complex final breakthrough concession, Tony Blair promised that - should he still be in power after the election - he would give MPs the opportunity to amend any part of the law they did not like.

He said he would ally the disputed legislation to the new anti-terror laws he has already promised to bring in next January.

That would, he insisted, fall short of being the sunset clause demanded by the Tories, which would in effect see the current, controversial laws torn up and put back on the drawing board.

Tory leader Michael Howard saw it differently, however, claiming the concession was indeed a sunset clause in everything but name.

And he called off his troops in the Lords, paving the way for the legislation - after two long days of continuous debate - to finally be accepted at the eleventh hour.

'Daft game'

But the conclusion to this row ended as it had been conducted, with both sides trading angry accusations.

It even went around that the prime minister was ready to pull the entire bill and call a snap election on the terror issue

Announcing his final concession, the prime minister accused Mr Howard of acting irresponsibly and turning the security of the nation into a "daft" political game.

Mr Howard, in turn, said it had been the prime minister's "arrogance" that had stopped the compromise being reached earlier.

And no one appeared in any doubt that it was the looming general election that has cast a long shadow over the entire proceedings.

There were obvious dangers for both parties in this high-octane row which had at its centre the security of the nation in a time of real threat.

Snap election

For the Tory leader, there was the risk voters would indeed start believing he had gone soft on terrorism, despite the party's formerly hard-line reputation.

And it certainly seemed to be the case that the public were broadly behind the government's approach.

But the prime minister must have known he was in danger of being accused, as Mr Howard had already done, of caring more about the way the issue would play in an election campaign than the nation's security.

At one point - at the height of the excitement in parliament - it even went around that the prime minister was ready to pull the entire bill and call a snap election on the terror issue.

But Mr Blair was eager to dismiss the suggestion, insisting he had never intended it to become an election issue.

Slanging match

It is likely both sides realised they had pushed this row as close to the edge of a genuine crisis as possible.

And, needless to say, both will go on to claim victory over the other.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, will claim they managed to win concessions they had been pressing for without getting into the political slanging match.

But it is also certain that this row will leave a legacy and will be regularly resurrected during the election campaign.

As now, Mr Blair and Mr Howard will undoubtedly claim it was the other who brought the issue to the brink of crisis.

And both will attempt to portray themselves as the only ones who can be trusted to properly defend Britain against international terrorism.

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