Tony Blair was humiliated in the Commons last night when he failed to cast the vote that would have saved his Government from defeat over plans to create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred.
Official voting records showed Mr Blair did not enter the voting lobbies as MPs backed a string of safeguards designed to water down the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill by a majority of just one.
Jubilant opposition MPs cried "resign" as they inflicted the two shock defeats on the Bill, only the second and third time Mr Blair has lost a vote in the Commons.
Records showed that Mr Blair voted in the first of two divisions on Lords amendments to the Bill, only to see the Government lose by 288 to 278, a majority of 10.
But Mr Blair failed to vote in a second division when MPs voted by 283 votes to 282, majority one, to back safeguards inserted by peers. Had he voted, it would have left the division tied, leaving the Speaker to exercise his casting vote, something not seen since 1993.
Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, accepted defeat and said the amended Bill would go on to the statute book. Conservatives jeered as he told MPs: "The Government accepts the decision of the House this evening. We are delighted the Bill is going to its Royal Assent and delighted we have a Bill which deals with incitement against religious hatred."
Under the Lords amendments, only "threatening" behaviour will be illegal, removing government attempts to outlaw "abusive or insulting" actions.
Peers had also changed the Bill to ensure that individuals can only be prosecuted if they intended to incite hatred.
The defeat, coming only two months after MPs voted down plans for a 90-day detention period under the Terrorism Bill, took government whips and rebel MPs by surprise.
It has profound implications for Mr Blair's ability to push through his main reforms in areas such as ID cards, which are likely to face huge opposition on the Labour benches.
It came at the end of a day of angry protest inside and outside the Commons, the culmination of a powerful lobbying effort by campaigners, including the comedian Rowan Atkinson, who argued the Government's plans could stifle freedom of speech.
Hundreds turned out to oppose a measure that they feared would curb religious debate and undermine free speech, although the Government has insisted it will only be used in rare cases where someone has deliberately or recklessly stirred up hatred of religious believers. Paul Goggins, the Home Office minister, tried to mollify opponents by praising them for making serious points, and insisting his job was to "calm fears". He promised the Commons that when the Bill was eventually passed, it would come with Home Office guidance to make sure it is not misused. But he faced a barrage of anger from all sides of the Commons.
Bob Marshall-Andrews , one of the Labour rebels, said: "This legislation is not unclear, it's blisteringly clear. For 300 years we have turned our faces against protecting by legislation because you cannot protect faith without also protecting bigotry."
Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said that without the changes "there is a fundamental concern that there would be a fundamental chilling of freedom of speech".
The defeat came after a massive miscalculation by government whips, with voting figures showing that at least 44 Labour MPs were absent from the first crucial vote. Rumours suggested that around 25 MPs had been given leave of absence to campaign in the Dunfermline by-election.
Recriminations had already started last night. Labour's chief whip Hilary Armstrong was under intense pressure because Mr Blair is thought to have been told it was safe to leave the Commons. In the event, the Labour rebellion was slightly cut to 21 on the second vote. Even the Respect MP George Galloway voted with the Government. But the rebellion was still enough to inflict a defeat.
Charles Kennedy, the former Liberal Democrat leader, and Mark Oaten, who resigned as the party's home affairs spokesman, were both in the Commons.
Last night's dramatic defeats for the Government came after the House of Lords moved to tighten the proposed offence of incitement to religious hatred amid claims that it would stifle free speech.
MPs were voting on whether to accept Lords amendments designed to make it harder for prosecutors to prove that any statement falls foul of the law.
Amendments accepted by the Commons last night mean that people cannot be prosecuted for recklessly inciting religious hatred. Instead, prosecutors will have to prove they intended to do so.
Secondly, MPs accepted amendments designed to ensure only the most sinister statements would be caught by the law. Under the amended Bill statements would only be outlawed if they were "threatening", removing an attempt to outlaw "abusive or insulting" statements and behaviour.
The Labour rebels
The 27 Labour MPs who backed the Lords against the Government in the first vote were:
Joe Benton (Bootle)
Dr Roger Berry (Kingswood)
Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)
Colin Challen (Morley & Rothwell)
Frank Cook (Stockton North)
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North)
Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe & Nantwich)
Bill Etherington (Sunderland North)
Frank Field (Birkenhead)
Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent Central)
Paul Flynn (Newport West)
Hywel Francis (Aberavon)
Dr Ian Gibson (Norwich North)
John Grogan (Selby)
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North)
Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool Walton)
John McDonnell (Hayes & Harlington)
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)
Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway)
Alan Meale (Mansfield)
Gordon Prentice (Pendle)
Geraldine Smith (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
David Taylor (Leicestershire North West)
Rudi Vis (Finchley & Golders Green)
Robert Wareing (Liverpool West Derby)
Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)Reuse content