A day of anger, confusion and frantic wrangling

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Indy Politics

So began the Government's blackest day, shortly after 3.30am. The Chancellor had decided to return to Westminster after being warned by his political secretary, Sue Nye, that this was shaping up to be a cliff-hanging vote.

A minibus carrying the Chancellor's special adviser, Damian McBride, and journalists was pulled over on the motorway from the airport as the news came through. Mr McBride ordered the minibus to return to the airport.

Mr Brown apologised to Palestinian and Israeli leaders for cancelling meetings. He was back at Westminster in time to sit at Tony Blair's side to the Prime Minister tell MPs that they had a "duty" to back his plan to allow the detention of terrorist suspects without charge for up to 90 days. Joining them on the front bench was Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, who had been ordered back from talks in Moscow.

Ian McCartney, the Labour chairman, who is recovering after a heart bypass operation, also returned to Westminster.

Although the Prime Minister put on a spirited show and was widely considered to have scored a points victory against Michael Howard, the Tory leader, the ground had already begun to slip away from Labour whips.

They mounted a ferocious effort. There were no qualms over stooping to emotional blackmail. Rebels were asked: "Are you going to vote with the police or not?" But the tough approach adopted by Hilary Armstrong, the Chief Whip, and her team appeared to have backfired. One left-winger said: "There are a lot of people who are very angry about what they see as appalling pressure to fall in line, particularly through the pages of The Sun."

The tensions were illustrated when witnesses reported the rebel leader, Bob Marshall-Andrews, the Labour MP for Medway, and Jim Dowd, a former government whip, squaring up. The more emollient Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, met groups of Labour backbenchers through the morning. He also sent an e-mail to MPs spelling out details of concessions to his party critics.

John Reid, the Defence Secretary, and Adam Ingram, the Armed Forces minister, turned their attention to the nine Democratic Unionist MPs led by Ian Paisley. They were understood to have offered greater compensation to members of the Royal Irish Regiment whose battalions are being disbanded. But the only Unionist ultimately to support the Government was Lady Sylvia Hermon, the lone representative of the Ulster Unionist Party.

When Mr Clarke rose to open the Commons debate just after 1.30pm, the signs were bleak. He was assailed by MPs on all sides. A former minister, Joan Ruddock, set the tone when she bemoaned the Government's failure to reach a consensus with its own MPs, let alone the Opposition. From that moment, backbenchers representing all shades of opinion in the party joined the onslaught.

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, twisted the knife by warning that the government's plans could encourage terrorism and David Winnick, the independent-minded Labour MP, won over waverers with a passionate plea for a 28-day limit.

The division came after three hours of debate in an unusually packed chamber. As he learnt of his first Commons defeat in more than eight years as Prime Minister, Mr Blair shook his head glumly. Fifteen minutes later his humiliation was complete as MPs voted for Mr Winnick's 28-day proposal.

In the Commons lobby, Labour rebels were jubilant, heading for Stranger's Bar to toast their victory.

A Labour whip heading for the post-mortem admitted: "You can hardly call that close."

For Mr Brown it was Groundhog Day. He headed back to Heathrow to catch the late flight to Tel Aviv and will meet Israeli and Palestinian officials today.

How events unfolded

* 10.30pm Tuesday: Gordon Brown flies to Israel to meet Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas.

* 3.30am Wednesday: Gordon Brown turns back, at the request of the Chief Whip, Hilary Armstrong, boarding the next commercial flight without leaving Tel Aviv airport.

* 7.45am: Foreign Office announces Jack Straw is returning from an EU-Russia meeting in Moscow.

* 12.00 noon: Tony Blair in the Commons for Prime Minister's Questions, with Brown and Straw at his side.

* 12.50pm: MPs begin debating the Terrorism Bill.

* 1.00pm: China's President Hu Jintao visits Downing Street for trade talks - with a civil rights demonstration outside.

* 3.56pm: Labour Party chairman Ian McCartney attends the Commons to vote for the first time since his heart surgery.

* 4.56pm: MPs vote by 322 to 291 to reject the clause that would have allowed police to hold terrorist suspects for 90 days without charge.

* 5.10 pm MPs vote by 323 to 290 to extend the period of detention without trial from 14 days to 28 days.

* 6.20 pm Michael Howard calls on Tony Blair to "consider his position" - i.e to resign.

* 7.00pm: Tony Blair accuses MPs of being "irresponsible".

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