Labour MPs have acquired a new taste for rebellion

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Indy Politics

Labour MPs saw very differently - and not just the 20 or so usual left-wing suspects. The danger for the Prime Minister is that he is starting to lose the support of the mainstream majority of the parliamentary Labour Party.

Worryingly for Mr Blair, his growing number of critics have discovered a powerful weapon: the House of Commons. As Labour MPs discussed the prospects of further rebellions in the Commons bars and corridors last night, the word was: "He ain't seen nothing yet." Many backbenchers feel more angry about his domestic plans than they do about locking up terrorist suspects for 90 days without charge.

His first Commons defeat since coming to power does not automatically mean that his days in Downing Street are numbered. But these are not normal times, because Mr Blair took the unprecedented step just over a year ago of announcing that he would not fight a fourth general election as Labour leader. His statement, designed to avoid the trap Margaret Thatcher fell into by saying she would go "on and on", may now come back to haunt him.

Because his MPs know he is going to stand down, last night's severe setback could easily mark the start of a dangerous phase in which he is seen as a lame duck.

If that happens, the end could come much sooner than he wants.

Last night's vote was more than a rejection of a draconian power sought by the police. It was also a rejection of Mr Blair's style of running his party. The cajoling and bullying might have worked with a majority of 167, but it has less clout with a majority of 66. It will cut even less ice now that Labour MPs have acquired a taste for rebellion.

The Prime Minister will have to work much harder at taking his own MPs with him to secure the changes he wants on schools, greater use of the private sector by the NHS and curbs on incapacity benefit. Tribal anti-Tory appeals are no longer enough. A dangerous divide is opening between him and his backbenchers. He will have to consult them more and accept compromises.

His failure to budge over 90 days cost him dearly. If he had settled for 60, many Labour MPs believe he would have got it. His stubbornness resulted in a more humiliating defeat than was necessary.

The Prime Minister denied that the vote was an issue of confidence but it was as close to a formal one as it could be.

It is too soon to predict when the Blair era will draw to a close, but last night surely marks the beginning of the end.