Bill turns into battle of wills between Howard and Blair

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair went "eyeball to eyeball" with Michael Howard as he turned a parliamentary impasse over anti-terror laws into a personal battle of will between the two leaders.

Tony Blair went "eyeball to eyeball" with Michael Howard as he turned a parliamentary impasse over anti-terror laws into a personal battle of will between the two leaders.

Wrangling over the Prevention of Terrorism Bill stretched throughout the night as Mr Blair and Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, intensified their pre-election war of words with the Conservatives. MPs and peers spent the day in deadlock as the legislation introducing control orders, including house arrest, for terror suspects shuttled between the Commons and the Lords.

Tempers frayed as Mr Blair and Mr Clarke accused the Tories of putting the country's security at risk with their resistance to the Bill. Tension increased as one of the foreign terrorist suspects held at Belmarsh Prison was released on bail, with eight more expected to be freed today, and Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, warned of a "grave threat to national security" if the detainees were released without controls.

The current anti-terrorist laws expire on Monday. Ministers insist their new legislation is essential to prevent suspects walking free because they cannot be brought to trial.

Mr Blair took direct control of the Government's tactics as the parliamentary stand-off reached its climax. One minister said: "It's now eyeball to eyeball between him and Howard and there is no way the boss is going to back down."

Mr Blair's official spokesman said attempts to impose a time limit on anti-terror laws increased the danger of Britain being attacked.

The Prime Minister dismissed out of hand attempts to put a one-year time limit on the legislation, arguing it would "cast a pall of uncertainty" over the legislation.

In a direct challenge to Mr Howard he said: "They have simply got to understand ­ to continue to water down and dilute this legislation is not responsible. It is wrong. They should stop it. We need this legislation to protect the security of the people in this country."

But a livid Mr Howard retorted: "I don't think it's in Britain's best interests for this Bill to become law permanently. If Mr Blair thinks it is necessary today, he can have it for a year. If he's serious about fighting terrorism, he'll accept that. If he's not, he's playing politics and he will be responsible for the consequences." One of his senior lieutenants added: "If they are almost willing there to be some terrorist attack so they can blame it on the Tories that is clearly ludicrous."

The tense Parliamentary "ping-pong" between the Commons and the Lords over the issue continued into the evening yesterday in a string of damaging defeats for the Government, despite a series of concessions announced by Mr Clarke on Wednesday.

A cross-party coalition of peers insisted on a one-year "sunset clause", voting 250 to 100, a majority of 150. The Lords also defied the Government over the burden of proof required before control orders can be made and demanded a greater judicial oversight of orders. But by 8pm the Lords votes were all overturned by the Commons, with MPs rejecting the peers' call for a 12-month sunset clause by 324 to 217, a Government majority of 107. Three hours later peers voted to re-instate the sunset clause.

Mark Oaten, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "It is for the politicians to ensure that when we have those control orders, we have them to the highest quality of the judicial process and that is what today is all about."

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