Leading article: Be grateful for this incompetence

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The Independent Online

The shambles in Parliament on Tuesday night represents a new low in this Government's management of the House of Commons. The Prime Minister's Racial and Religious Hatred Bill suffered a stinging double defeat as MPs voted to accept the Lords' amendments watering down the legislation. This is not the first time Mr Blair has been defeated in the Commons. But on Tuesday it occurred in particularly humiliating circumstances.

The Government ended up losing the second division by a single vote. And it turns out that if the Prime Minister had voted, the Government might have got its way. There is a greater significance, too. The Government enjoys a majority substantially greater than the size of Tuesday's rebellion by Labour MPs. Mr Blair should, in theory, have been able to see it off with ease. This shows not only that the Government does not have much control over its own MPs, but that it does not even know what its own MPs are thinking.

Yet if ever there is a time to be grateful for the Government's incompetence, this is it. The Bill in its original form was a terrible curb on the right to free speech. It would have outlawed any behaviour deemed "abusive" or "insulting" to a faith - a dangerously broad definition. The legislation in its final form is not much better. But it at least encourages hope that the law has been so tightly drawn that it will never be used.

This is the latest strand of Mr Blair's anti-terrorism package, unveiled in the wake of the July 7 bombings in London, to disintegrate. Plans to outlaw the glorification of terrorism have been mauled by the Lords. Legislation to create longer detention times for terror suspects has been watered down. The courts look likely to stymie the Government's efforts to deport people to state torturers such as Algeria and Jordan. We have heard little, since Mr Blair announced them, of proposals to close mosques and militant bookshops.

The Government's response to the July atrocities has summed up all the worst aspects of Mr Blair's style of government: badly designed proposals intended to capture headlines, followed by a failure to deliver. Ironically, this must be regarded as a blessing with many of these illiberal measures.

The Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, claims Tuesday's defeat was due to the unthinking opposition mentality of some Labour MPs. This is not so. The rebel MPs were by no means justthe usual suspects. A dangerous and authoritarian Bill drew genuine opposition from all sides of the House, and rightly so. The Government needs to appreciate that Parliament - its own MPs included - will not stand idly by while cherished freedoms are undermined.

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