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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 February 2006, 10:52 GMT
The cost of defeat for Blair
Analysis
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

The government defeats over religious hate laws may not have seen the biggest backbench rebellions of Tony Blair's reign and, on their own, will not prove fatal to his leadership.

Tony Blair
Blair failed to vote and was defeated by one
But they are undoubtedly the most embarrassing revolts and may have more far-reaching and damaging implications for his future.

First off, they show just how organised, determined and - most dangerously for Tony Blair - unafraid backbenchers now are. They appear ready to vote freely, even on a manifesto policy, without any concern over the likely response from their leader

These were, after all, only the second and third defeats he has suffered since entering Downing Street, but all have come since he pre-announced his retirement.

Secondly, they risk suggesting this is a government which has lost touch with, and control of, its MPs. The result of that is the inevitable sense that this is a prime minister whose authority appears to be draining away.

One vote

Finally, they portray a party machine in the Commons that has little idea what its troops are thinking or how they plan to vote.

The Commons chamber
Labour revolt surprised party bosses
Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong, whose job is to ensure the government wins its votes, was so taken by surprise that she even landed the prime minister with the great embarrassment of failing to turn up for a vote which he then lost - by one vote.

And, of course, it bodes ill for the future which will see career-threatening revolts over the prime minister's big legacy reforms - most importantly on education.

But sacking Ms Armstrong or claiming this was just another example of the usual suspects seizing an opportunity to damage the government - as Charles Clarke attempted - will not help.

The chief whip certainly appears to have lost her grip on the situation on Tuesday evening and will very likely pay the price, but she increasingly looks like a shepherd trying to round up ferrets.

And these were not all the usual suspect rebels but included MPs with genuine and firmly-held fears over planned laws which had already sparked huge opposition outside the Commons amid claims they were an assault on the fundamental right of free expression.

No idea

In any case, with a majority of more than double the size of the rebellion, this revolt is something any government should be able to see off with ease.

Charles Clarke
Clarke claimed revolt was political

It is not the sort of thing people are used to seeing unless a government is in its dying days. The prime minister will recall all too well the problems faced by Margaret Thatcher and John Major as they lost their power.

The greatest possible danger for the prime minister is appearing to have no clear idea any more of what his MPs are up to, let alone any control over it.

More than once he has been forced to rely on Chancellor Gordon Brown - universally viewed as the leader-in-waiting - to whip backbenchers into line.

That has already been attempted with the looming revolt over education reforms. But even if it works - which is still far from certain - it may only underline the notion that power in this government now resides in No 11 Downing Street.

These defeats raise the prospect that, even if the prime minister wins the day on his education reforms, he may not be free and clear.

Prime ministers' demises can come not just with a big bang, but also from a thousand cuts.

Nick.Assinder-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk




SEE ALSO:
Blair ponders religious hate loss
01 Feb 06 |  UK Politics
Religious hate plans face protest
31 Jan 06 |  UK Politics
New religious hate plans unveiled
26 Jan 06 |  UK Politics
Religious hate bill changes urged
30 Jan 06 |  UK Politics
Deal offer on religious hate law
20 Oct 05 |  UK Politics
Public split over new hate laws
18 Jul 05 |  UK Politics
Q&A: Religious hatred law
09 Jun 05 |  UK


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