Pressure on Armstrong after religious hatred Bill 'cock-up'

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Indy Politics

Ministers were growing increasingly gloomy yesterday about Tony Blair's prospects of pushing controversial legislation through the Commons in the wake of the unexpected defeat of his Racial and Religious Hatred Bill.

The larger than expected Labour revolt has now cast a heavy shadow over the Education Bill, due to be published later this month, the proposal to introduce ID cards, and the clause of the Terrorism Bill which outlaws "glorification" of terrorism. All three have roused substantial opposition on the Labour side.

Downing Street tried to shrug off the defeat as a "one-off" and a "cock-up". Mr Blair's official spokesman said: "It happened. I'm sure every effort will be made to make sure it doesn't happen again."

But a senior government figure said: "You can't just go around saying, 'These things happen'. You've got to find out why they happen. There are too many serial rebels, too many people who have become rebels who needn't really be rebels at all, too many who say they are going to go on rebelling until the Prime Minister resigns."

Mr Blair was forced to make a public promise yesterday that he would turn up in person for important Commons votes in future. He was only yards away, in his office, when a key clause in his Racial and Religious Hatred Bill was defeated by 283-282 votes.

His absence was seized on by the Conservative leader, David Cameron, as a chance to ridicule Labour's beleaguered chief whip, Hilary Armstrong, who was under fire for allowing so many Labour MPs to be absent, having failed to foresee the possibility of defeat.

"She is probably the first chief whip in history to put the Prime Minister in the frame for losing a key vote, which is an interesting career move to say the least," Mr Cameron told MPs during Prime Minister's Questions.

Earlier, the Prime Minister's spokesman denied Ms Armstrong was about to be sacked, saying Mr Blair still had "enormous respect" for her. But among Labour MPs there was a general expectation yesterday that Ms Armstrong would be out in the next cabinet reshuffle.

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