Cabinet rallies to defiant Blair as criticism mounts

An uncompromising Mr Blair told the Cabinet yesterday that there was a gulf between MPs who rejected police requests for power to detain terrorist suspects for up to 90 days without charge and the reality of terror threats. Cabinet ministers rallied to Mr Blair, but senior backbenchers were furious about his comments and warned he must "listen more" to secure planned changes to education, health and welfare. Some rebels privately likened him to an "out-of-touch" Margaret Thatcher in the period before she was ousted in 1990.

David Winnick, a Labour MP who successfully proposed a 28-day detention limit on Wednesday, said: "The idea that those of us who voted for 28 days - the majority of MPs - don't understand the terrorist threat, that we are soft on terror and don't understand the menace from the mass murderers ...is poisonous nonsense. Not one single life of those innocent people murdered on 7 July would have been saved if it was 90 days."

Peter Kilfoyle, a former defence minister, said: "Any reality check should start at No 10. The Prime Minister is out of touch with his own party and both Houses. He can't keep playing the loyalty card. He said after the May election he had listened and learnt. If he listened, he hasn't learnt the right lessons."

Michael Meacher, the former environment minister, said: "We want a strong leader. But strong leaders do listen and take account of broad public opinion and the parliamentary party. There was a very rigid attempt to force through a decision that was never going to be acceptable."

Blair aides acknowledged privately that ministers would need to "communicate better and earlier" with Labour MPs as they made a case for reforms to schools, incapacity benefit and greater use of the private sector by the NHS. They recognised that the argument for a 90-day detention limit was made too late.

The Prime Minister's public message was issued after he met senior police officers, including Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and security service chiefs for what No 10 said was a routine, pre-arranged meeting to discuss counter-terrorism.

John Reid, the Defence Secretary, claimed that the Tories had made "a strategic mistake" by voting against a 90-day limit. "I believe that both Davis and Cameron are now crippled if they become leader of the Conservative Party," he said. "Because they are on the wrong side of the argument about national security."

In the aftermath of Mr Blair's first Commons defeat since coming to power, the Tories accused Labour of "politicising" the police force during a lobbying operation by police chiefs in favour of a 90-day limit. Several police chiefs spoke in favour of the proposal and Andy Hayman, an Assistant Metropolitan Police Commissioner, addressed groups of wavering Labour MPs.

Two former Tory cabinet ministers, Stephen Dorrell and Peter Lilley, tabled a Commons motion condemning "the unprecedented campaign to mobilise chief constables to lobby MPs in favour of government policy". They said it was "a damaging step towards the politicisation of the police".

Mr Dorrell said: "We need to ensure that the distinction is maintained between the process of policy-making, which is properly for the Government, and the enforcement of law, which is properly for police. The police should be independent of politics, not embroiled in it."

David Davies, a Tory backbencher, accused the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) of "behaving like an affiliated branch of the Labour Party". Downing Street and Acpo rejected the charge, insisting that the 90-day proposal was initially a police initiative and that chief constables were entitled to contact MPs to explain the rationale behind it.

Geoff Hoon, the Leader of the Commons, said MPs needed to hear police views. "No one is suggesting that police officers should be politicised," he said.

Michael Howard, the Tory leader, demanded that Mr Blair explain why he gave MPs inaccurate information about security operations in the run-up to Wednesday's vote. The Prime Minister said there had been arrests in relation to a terrorist operation last weekend. But Mr Howard said a No 10 spokeswoman had already conceded his comment referred to charges, rather than arrests. Two men arrested on 21 October were charged last Friday with conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to cause an explosion. But Scotland Yard said that there were no arrests related to terrorism last weekend.

Prime Minister's challenges

21 NOVEMBER

Terrorism Bill goes before the House of Lords

30 NOVEMBER

Report on pensions crisis by commission headed by former CBI boss Adair Turner

DECEMBER

Green Paper on Welfare expected, including cuts to incapacity benefit.

European Union summit in Brussels: pressure to give up £3bn a year rebate on Britain's EU contributions

NEW YEAR

White Paper on health expected: threat of Labour backbench rebellion.

Education Bill due to be published, threatening bigger revolt than over Terrorism Bill

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