This afternoon Tony Blair's government lost the vote on the Terrorism Bill. To give you an idea of why this matters, I can quote one statistic: in eight years in office, Tony Blair has never been defeated in a whipped vote. Not once.
British politics is rich in this "spank me harder, nanny!" terminology, and I can only imagine the lengths to which Labour's enforcers went to put the fear of God up recalcitrant backbenchers but it was to no avail.
On Monday, the vote on indirect incitement to terrorist acts passed by *one* vote. ONE.
(George Galloway -- lover of Iraqis and defender of Saddam, last seen berating Christopher Hitchens for being a quasi-fascist former Trotskyite popinjay -- could have defeated that section and forced the government into a rethink. However he couldn't be arsed to be there to vote against it because he had a commercial speaking engagement. This tells you all you need to know about his priorities, given that he is the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow. As entertaining as he might be when he is berating US congressional committees about the war in Iraq, I'm afraid we must conclude that Gorgeous George is a chancer and a publicity-seeking charlatan with all the moral acuity of tapeworm faeces.)
Yesterday's vote concerned the right of police to detain terror suspects before charging them. The meat of this part of the legislation is this: the police presently have the right to hold terror suspects for 14 days without charge. They wanted this increased to 90 days without charge -- with current remission practices that's the equivalent of sending someone to jail on a six-month sentence.
The police argue that with global travel and communications, a longer term of detention is necessary to gather evidence in order to bring charges. There is widespread backing for this viewpoint, but the opponents of this legislation counter that yes, the terrorism threat is genuine and grave, but so is the threat to civil liberties inherent in being able to jail citizens without trial for three months.
Throughout the earlier part of this week, there were backstage noises from the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, that a compromise was probably the best solution, somewhere between the 28 days that the police say is a minimal requirement and 42 or 60, which many rebels regard as still too much. Clarke did himself no favours with scathing comments about "pathetic" liberals whining on about the rights of criminals, given that most people are deeply uneasy about democracies condoning imprisonment without trial. (Also, the Labour party is supposed to be the party of the *liberal* half of the country, you dolt.)
Despite Clarke's manoeuvrings for a compromise, Tony Blair decided that this was to be the post to which he nailed his colours. He gave a barnstormer of a speech in which he laid claim to the moral high ground, giving his best "if banging up suspects without charge is wrong, I don't want to be right" oratorical flourishes.
The trouble is that Mr Blair's claim to the moral high ground is shaky to say the least. The dodgy dossier, the David Kelly affair, the revelation that the British ambassador to Washington was ordered to "get up the arse of the White House and stay there", the spin-doctoring and the half-truths mean that his words move few.
His own backbenchers despise him. He has also stated he will step down before the next election, due in 2010, which means that he no longer fully holds the power of patronage.
Taken together, it means he was ripe for a spanking, and one that has taken way too long to come IMO. His penchant for governing by diktat and by policy adviser, ignoring parliament, making legislation on the hoof and reverse-ferreting his way through the news agenda makes him an impressive politician but a far less impressive governor of the country. One always gets the sense that he prefers strutting and fretting on the international stage rather than dealing with the difficult nitty gritty of making life better for ordinary people.
Though Mr Tony has a majority in the House of Commons of 66 MPs -- positive luxury compared to previous prime ministers, whose majorities were so wafer-thin that 10 refuseniks could hobble legislative manoeuvres for weeks -- he lost this vote by 332 votes to 291. 49 of his own party rebelled.
It was beautiful. Oh my God, I've been waiting for that man to get his for so long. Law after law has been passed with the help of his huge majorities, transforming the country in ways which I find disquieting at best, negligent at worst. Student loans, PFI, glorification of terror. Then there's the Iraq war, which is less a can of worms than an entire supermarket, stocked entirely with worms...
There's little doubt that this was a personal vote against Blair, as well as a vote to say "enough is enough with the draconian terror legislation, thankyouverymuch". Blair was so keen to paint opponents as weak-willed and soft on terror, a weaselly despicable tactic much used by the Republicans, that he alienated those who do believe a somewhat longer period of detention should be allowed. As a result they also declined to support a revised proposal that would have given police 60 days.
Of course he argues that the MPs have gone against public opinion by voting against the 90-day provision.
Public opinion. Feh. "Public opinion" would reinstate hanging.
"Public opinion" thinks Jordan is sexy.
"Public opinion" has given fucking *Westlife* more No 1 records than Abba, Oasis, The Rolling Stones or U2.
Public opinion is the hot and fetid breath of an idiot child.
(Unless public opinion agrees with me, in which case The Voice of the People Has Spoken.)
I've been reading around the Times online and the Telegraph tonight and everywhere there is this hopeful tone of "maybe Mr Blair will now be forced to step down earlier!" It's a vain hope. The man is a masterful politician. But God knows the news trade likes it when it smells blood in the water.
And so do I.
LINKS: Torygraph: "Blair's blackest day"
Times leader: "Blair charged ahead and lost
Grauniad: After eight years in power Tony Blair hears a new word: defeat
And finally, can I recommend this link to you, if only because a lot of the stories are gossipy fun as well as politically interesting, particularly the one about Blair's too-tight jeans:
Sir Christopher Meyer's memoirs
I was going to post next about the French riots, multiculturalism and national identity, but I have detained you long enough. Goodnight.