[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 10 November 2005, 11:26 GMT
Robinson's view: Blair's defeat
By Nick Robinson
BBC News political editor

Nick Robinson
Nick Robinson: Will Mr Blair change?

We are faced, ladies and gentlemen, with the Mystery of the Government's Missing Majority.

How did Tony Blair take what the electorate handed him, a comfortable Commons majority of 66, and turn it an uncomfortably large defeat - a majority of minus 31?

The answer is simple. He ignored those party managers, government business managers, law officers, Home Office ministers who had been telling him for weeks that he could never persuade Parliament to back 90 days detention without trial.

And yet this morning the home secretary heroically fell on his sword, insisting that it was his decision and not Tony Blair's to march his men towards the sound of gunfire.

It was his responsibility, then, that the government's forces had been brutally mown down.


You will find it hard this morning to find anyone in Labour's ranks who agrees. They will admire Charles Clarke for his public remorse and then contrast it with the prime minister's stark insistence last night that he'd been right and his critics wrong all along.

Whilst Mr Clarke risked his authority by promising to find a compromise Tony Blair, I'm told, refused to discuss a fallback position because he was determined not to fall back.

For 11 years now he has only one approach - to lead from the front and then to confront, challenge, and chivvy the Labour Party into backing him.

But fall back he has to - to 28 days - when, perhaps, a different approach could have secured approval for a longer period -say 42 or 60 days.

The reason Tony Blair refuses to look contrite is because he isn't contrite. He believes what he did was right for the country and right for his party - positioning Labour as "tough on terror" and the Tories as weak.

He also takes strength from opinion polls which show the public's on his side.

So, why all the questions about his authority? Because the test of his remaining time in office is not his ability to woo the public or to win elections but to govern.


And he doesn't want merely to govern. He says he wants to be "the changemaker" radically reshaping the provision of public services and the welfare state not to mention convincing a sceptical country to re-embrace nuclear power and re-new our costly nuclear deterrent.

For 11 years now he has only one approach - to lead from the front and then to confront, challenge, and chivvy the Labour Party into backing him.

No-one could argue that it has been anything other than a startlingly successful strategy. Until yesterday.

Does he have another way to lead? Or will dealing with the mystery of the government's missing majority make his party tire of him, or more likely still, him tire of them?

His most senior colleagues are urging him now to work with his party rather than constantly seeking to divide it. His aides promise "he'll take more time to explain" policy.

There's talk of the health and education secretaries holding seminars and delivering PowerPoint presentations. This is unlikely to impress the 50 Labour MPs who rebelled last time and are ready to do so again and again.

They don't want explanation or consultation. They want negotiation about what they will and will not wear. The big votes on the biggest controversies don't come until after Christmas.

The rebels say they don't want to change their leader, they want their leader to change his ways.

The question is - can he? Does he have another way to lead? Or will dealing with the mystery of the government's missing majority make his party tire of him, or more likely still, him tire of them?

Send us your comments on Nick Robinson's piece using the form below.

This debate is now closed. Thank you for your comments.

Mr. Blair should be careful talking about MPs being out of touch with public opinion: there are many examples from his premiership to date of laws and policies that he has personally advocated which have flown in the face of public opinion; tuition fees being just one. He knows that his criticism is a fatuous one and dangerous to pursue to its logical end. Had past governments not flown in the face of public opinion we would have the death penalty, homosexuality would still be illegal and women would be denied the vote. No, the only time public opinion really counts is at elections. For the Prime Minister to say that his opponents are out of touch because they cannot vote, on principle, with him is arrogant, insulting to opponents and dangerously narrow-minded.
George, London, UK

The debate is only partially about the rights and wrongs of the 90 days. For the future of the Blair premiership, the problem is his inability - or unwillingness - to listen. His antennae have, until yesterday, been impeccable. He has been able to read both the public and his backbenchers (helped, before the last election, by an unassailable majority) with an unparalleled accuracy. Yesterday, he over-stepped the mark and shifted from clairvoyance to arrogance. He has compounded his arrogance by saying, this morning, that many politicians are out of touch with the public, when in fact it looks like it is him who is out of touch. Thatcher was in Downing Street for too long and shifted to arrogance ("We are a grandmother"). Blair is in very real danger of doing the same.
Charlie Pryor, London, UK

Headline Blair says MPs are out of touch. why are the words 'Pot' 'Kettle'and 'Black' coming into my head?
Jon Roberts, Chesterfield England

This is not an issue of party politics. It is an issue of constitutional importance - should the police be allowed to lock us up for nearly three months with no proof we have done anything wrong? I say no, especially considering the institutional racism that was present in the police as recently as the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. Blair is doing what the establishment generally does - trying to grab more power for itself - which is why we need a written constitution and a fair electoral system that really reflects the will of the people. Unfortunately it seems that the majority of people would be happy to be locked up for 90 days if the police thought they were a terrorist. The police can make mistakes, and have done so, but what the hell - it's only three months! Great. So the police protect us from terrorists. Who protects us from the police?
Kieron, Stratford upon Avon

For once the Conservatives have done the right thing and behaved like an opposition party and challenged the government. The policy didn't work in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and it won't work now - all the MPs who voted against this legislation know this and deserve respect for having the guts to go against public opinion - the public's opinion can be misinformed and wrong and should not be followed without question. I will never vote Labour again while Blair is leader.
Jonathan Fisher, London, UK

Every civil right one has is predicated by one being out of prison and free to enjoy it. From 90 days to indefinite detention with out charge is but a short step and one taken in South Africa to our eternal shame. The only safeguards a citizen has are an independent judiciary and an accountable police and Government. Allowing one man to decide the fate of another without legal checks and balances, is to bring the Star Chamber and its horrors to life again.
Leigh Ross, Kunkletown USA

So Nick says that Tony Blair is convinced the public is behind him. How about bringing the death penalty back, I understand the public want that as well or is he being selective?
Robin Dean, Sutton Coldfield

The best way to protect our freedoms is not to take them away, but instead to have the guts to maintain them in the face of danger
Tom Wiltshire, Leeds, UK
Blair is being extremely arrogant to tell everyone that they've all got it wrong. I remember back in February 2003 he told the anti-war protesters that they were wrong too - we were thoughtlessly ignoring an imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction. Well, you were wrong then, Tony, and you're wrong again now. The best way to protect our freedoms is not to take them away, but instead to have the guts to maintain them in the face of danger.
Tom Wiltshire, Leeds, UK

Tony Blair's attitude reminds me of the final period of the Thatcher era, when all she could say was the people misunderstood her, that she was right and that they would need to re-iterate their message so that people understood. The people do understand - it's the latter-day despots who do not. Move on Tony and allow in someone who can listen.
Eva McDiarmid, Glasgow, Scotland

There is too much vilification of 'terrorist suspects', as if they are already guilty. The majority of terrorist suspects held by police have been released without charge, having proven to be innocent citizens, just like you or I. MPs voted against the 90-day rule because they do not want to give the police power to hold innocent citizens without trial for such a long time. In doing so, they defended the same civil liberties that the real terrorists are trying to take away from us.
Phil, London, UK

I wonder when it is that Old Labour is going to realise that the only thing keeping them in government is Tony Blair's right-of-labour appeal. A lot of meal has been made of the 90 days - very little mention of the fact that police would need to justify the continued detention to a judge every 7 days. The average labour MP hasn't a clue what is involved in a forensic/terrorist investigation. They watch too much television - and think the police can crack a case in 60 minutes (minus commercial breaks). The police wanted much longer than 90 days - 90 was a compromise for them...
Nigel, London

I am a Londoner living in America, you have a wonderful leader in Tony Blair. My heart swells with pride when he gives a speech. He has the respect of people and countries world wide. Stand by him, like he stood with America. War is never popular, please don't copy the American congress and bicker and fight over everything. It depresses the nation and people loss faith in their leaders.
Iris Shortland Ziegler, Dallas, USA

On this issue Blair is wrong. And justly so democracy prevailed in the end over the diktats of a few police officers backed by political rhetoric that people are sick and tired of. I would like Blair to learn from his defeat and respect the views of the parliament and not behave as a sore looser. In a way, through the parliament, the people have spoken and as a staunch protector of democracy Blair should listen and learn - the essential qualities of any good leader. His counter attack on MPs only proves that with Blair you can only agree, however wrong you think he is and the facts will eventually prove (for instance, his rhetoric on the dodgy dossier and his utter disdain for those who questioned him on that). Sometimes great leaders learn from their mistakes and if Blair learns how to cope with difference of opinion he might indeed become one of the finest British prime ministers. After all, his record on other policies such as education is as immaculate as one can expect from a great leader. He blighted his second term on Iraq, he should not do the same with his third term on imagined security fears.
Srikanth, Cambridge, UK

We are lucky to live in a democracy but strong leadership is required or we will degenerate into the Tory debacle we had before. The Labour party should realise that as soon as they start pussy-footing around, the electorate will decide the Tories should be given a chance to be the strong united party and Labour are gone for another 20 years. Can the Tories be a strong opposition? Watch the young pretender shoot the Tories to power, it's started and Labour can't see it. They've put the first nail in their own coffin!
Melvyn Brown, Haverhill, UK

Tony Blair was right when he said this it's better to stand and fight for something you believe in rather than give in. The government seems to have a better feel for what the man on the street wants rather than the Conservatives, Liberals or these so called Labour MP's. The conversation in my office this morning has been 'what are these ........ playing at'. These MP's should be called to account at re-selection time and shown the door. These MP's will be well protected when the next attack happens, what about the rest of us?
Colin Ellis, Staylbridge, Cheshire

Fine - except the electorate DID NOT hand Tony Blair a comfortable majority - a bankrupt and corrupted electoral system did. The majority of those who voted rejected him and his arrogance out of hand!
Jim Francis, London

I am generally opposed to Tony Blair and his party, but on this issue of 90 days detention I wholeheartedly agree with him
James Millett, Beckenham, Kent
I am generally opposed to Tony Blair and his party, but on this issue of 90 days detention I wholeheartedly agree with him. We should give the police the time they need to do their work thoroughly in their investigation of terrorist suspects. After all, we are dealing with the most vile creatures imaginable, and should not be smitten with misplaced sympathy.
James Millett, Beckenham, Kent, England

This is usually the case with leaders that want the whole nation to see things through their eyes. They end being humiliated by the same people
Mike Maonde, Lusaka, Zambia

If democracy is to work we must scrutinise even the most 'trustworthy' sources. The police can and have made mistakes - so it is right that the request for such a serious breach of civil liberties as detention without charge for 90 days should be able to be proven. All I have heard from Clarke and Blair are assertions that they trust the police. I have not heard them prove why 90 days is more useful that 80 or why 100 days is excessive. Blair's opponents gave cogent reasons why they opposed 90 days. The last time Blair asked us to trust him because he believed he was right we went to war on a false premise which he 'believed' but didn't scrutinise. Saying 'I believe' is ok for religion - but its lazy government.
Colleen, Manchester England

Blair used the rhetoric of Bush when trying to justify his stance, including the often quoted mantra "they are trying to destroy us because they hate the democracy we stand for". He has clearly heard this so many times he has started to believe it. It perhaps serves as an emollient to his sense of shame over Iraq, but still does not convince most of the electorate, nor his MP's. Let the British show we have more sense than to allow ourselves to sleepwalk towards legislation reminiscent of Camp X-ray.
Domin, London UK

The old left is clearly still there in the Labour Party. They, together with a few embittered ex-ministers, risk turning the clock back 20 years in voters perception of Labour. I don't agree with a lot of what Tony Blair does but at least he is trying to modernise this country. The Labour party has the choice to back its leader's reforms, or risk going back into the wilderness. The Conservatives, particularly if they have a younger fresher David Cameron as leader, look like they will be the only winners.
Steve, London, UK

Tony Blair is the architect of his own misfortune and regrettably the country's too. As always he is selective with the advice he takes in the support of one of his missions. This time it's the Police and Home Office who's advice he is duty bound to accept. But wasn't it the Chief Police Officers and the Magistrates, who advised the same Mr. Blair, not to proceed with the 24hr Licensing Laws. That advice didn't suite and he didn't take it.
Steve Burke, Clitheroe

Tony Blair's first interview after the Commons defeat

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific